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August 2015

Driver examiners play a crucial role in ensuring new drivers are safe drivers

Photos by Pablo Alcala —photo on the left: Deborah Gilley, a certified driver testing administrator in Kentucky, was recognized as the 2013 International Driver Examiner Certification (IDEC) Examiner of the Year.

Giving a road test had never required as much patience, sensitivity and good humor as the day Deborah Gilley set out with a nervous new driver whose family had pressured her into getting her license. When Gilley, a certified driver testing administrator in Kentucky, told the young woman to back up while staying in her lane, the driver confused the gas and brake pedals, ramming the car into a telephone pole.

Gilley would spend the next six weeks with no feeling on one side of her face, the result of a pinched nerve from the accident. But in the moments after impact, she nevertheless handled the candidate—who, predictably, failed the test—with aplomb.

“I told her to go home and practice for a long time,” recalls Gilley, a 26-year examiner and designated “rover” who administers driving tests in 16 counties in her region. “I tried to laugh about it and put her at ease. I always tell these kids that if anyone in this car should be nervous, it shouldn’t be them.”

The incident is one on a long list of memorable moments in her career. But Gilley, who was named the 2013 International Driver Examiner Certification (IDEC) Outstanding Examiner of the Year, epitomizes the group of workers at the core of what AAMVA seeks to accomplish: safe drivers and saving lives.

Indeed, driver examiners are increasingly crucial at brick-and-mortar DMV facilities, because driving tests must still take place in person despite more services and transactions taking place online or via mail. As the employees providing the final verdict on whether new drivers should be granted a driver’s license, driver examiners help ensure that all new drivers are safe drivers.

But actually making that happen is far more complicated than it sounds. “Driver examiners are really the backbone and foundation of what DMVs do,” says Denise Hanchulak, AAMVA’s program director for Certification and Standards. “They’re the first people that applicants see when they walk through the doors. But sometimes what they do goes unnoticed by many, especially the public.”

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AAMVA offers “Train the Trainer” classes for CDL examiners to help ensure the drivers of these larger vehicles know the rules of the road.

A Day in the Life

Giving road tests may be the most obvious part of driver examiners’ jobs, but it’s hardly their only duty in most jurisdictions. A typical day involves a blend of inspecting drivers’ vehicles and documents as well as administering written knowledge tests and eye tests, and all must be accomplished before new drivers even get behind the wheel for the all-important road exam. If applicants mishandle any of those steps, driver examiners are the ones who inevitably deal with the fallout.

“Unfortunately, not everyone is prepared, and driver examiners get the brunt of these people who don’t come in with the right paperwork,” Hanchulak explains. “[Examiners] play a huge part in determining fraud as well, because they have to make sure those documents are legitimate. Their goal is to pass you; they’re not there to flunk you. It gives them great pleasure when someone passes. It’s a hard job.”

While Gilley and her colleagues don’t claim the role of teacher, they recognize that their duties often overlap with instructing new drivers who are less-than-proficient behind the wheel. The most frequent mistakes Gilley observes are drivers who don’t stay in their lanes or look both ways when making a turn. “You’d be surprised to know that by the time they get to us, many still don’t know how to check their blind spots,” she says. “I’m always amazed by that. It’s a little unnerving.

“But we really drill that into them, and we go over every point they lost and make sure they understand how and why they need to do it correctly,” Gilley adds. “Sometimes we may see individuals two or three times before it sinks in that they have to do it this way in order to pass. But it might be something that saves their life down the road, or another person’s [life].”

Consistent Testing

A heavy dose of training by AAMVA, which runs “Train the Trainer” courses for examiners at centralized facilities, enables driver examiners from all jurisdictions to apply their skills with a uniformity that leaves them ready for anything a new driver can dish out during a road test.

Beyond that, driver examiners in 33 states and Canada benefit from IDEC certification, which is voluntary in each jurisdiction. AAMVA teamed up with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the 1980s to develop the IDEC examiner certification program to increase examiners’ knowledge and competence, providing lesson plans, quizzes, videos, workbooks and activities toward this formal training.

To become IDEC-certified, examiners in participating jurisdictions must complete a minimum of 40 hours of initial training and undergo refresher training at least once every four years. “Examiners can affect driver safety through this standardized training and testing,” explains Linda Dunstall, chair of the IDEC Board and director of the Modernization Project for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. “It’s not subjective—if I took a driving test today, and then the next day I took it somewhere else, the rules would be the same. If there were no training of driver examiners, this would be opinion-based.

“Even things like how far in advance they give directions to make a turn are scripted,” adds Dunstall. “You realize that one word could throw someone off completely, but how to speak to the applicant is part of the training. Across Canada and the U.S., I see a lot of consistency in how to deliver the test.”

Working Toward Zero Deaths

Gilley never underestimates the value of the IDEC program, which is easy for jurisdictions to adopt if they haven’t already because it’s closely aligned with AAMVA standards currently in place. “IDEC certification provides a uniformity across the [jurisdictions] that indicates we’re all on the same page,” Gilley says. “And it sets us apart. With the certification, you’re recognized as being a professional.”

Seeing as not all new drivers are teenagers, driver examiners may also be tasked with giving commercial driver license (CDL) tests to applicants hoping to operate buses, trucks and other big rigs. Again, AAMVA steps in with a Train the Trainer program—carried out with the help of members in several jurisdictions—to make sure these drivers, with such heavy loads and responsibilities, take to the roads safely.

“Although they’re not 17 and a brand-new driver in that sense, if they’ve never operated a commercial vehicle and suddenly they want to drive a tractor-trailer, they’re new drivers,” notes Karen Morton, AAMVA’s program director of Driver Licensing, who runs the commercial Train the Trainer classes. “We’re making sure we have the right people on the road.”

No matter which new drivers they’re testing, the mission of all examiners is inextricably linked with AAMVA’s vision of safe drivers, safe vehicles and saving lives. Additionally, driver examiners play a part in the Toward Zero Deaths initiative, a collaborative effort by many national organizations—including AAMVA—committed to reducing annual U.S. traffic deaths from more than 33,000 per year to zero.

“The examiners play a huge part in this because they’re our first line of defense,” Hanchulak says. “They’re the ones out there testing people and handing over licenses to those who meet the minimum skills. They’re a huge part of the DMV and its role of reducing fatalities and crashes.”