Standardized Driver Testing

August 2016

A new model aims to provide more uniform testing for noncommercial drivers across jurisdictions

Americans have been hitting the road since the late-19th and early-20th centuries. And over the past 100-plus years, the rules of the road have changed gradually to make driving safer and more a standardized process.

In 1899, New York City and Chicago were the first to require certification for drivers of a “horseless carriage,” or steam car. Three years later, Massachusetts and Missouri were the first states to require a form of licensing to operate a motor vehicle. Rhode Island was the first state to issue a driver’s license exam in 1908. More standardized driver education began to develop in the 1930s, but not all states required a license and testing until 1959.

Even with all of the developments in the testing of non­commercial drivers, one thing has remained unchanged: Its implementation is carried out by the individual jurisdictions with no required consistency or shared standard. Each jurisdiction creates its driver’s manual, knowledge test and road test to administer to its residents who seek a license. Therefore, there are more than 50 different driver’s manuals, knowledge tests and road tests across North America.

Creating Uniformity

There are inconsistencies with the current jurisdiction by jurisdiction testing system, and the upcoming release of the Noncommercial Model Driver Testing System (NMDTS) will highlight a model system for addressing inconsistencies with a more uniform testing of noncommercial drivers across jurisdictions. NMDTS will be similar to the Model Commercial Driver License (CDL) Testing System, which is now the federal standard under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Act of 1986.

Under the CDL system, every driver applying for a license takes the exact same test in each jurisdiction. The model was part of an effort to establish national standards for measuring a driver’s ability to operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV), with the ultimate goal of making the roads safer for all drivers. “With CDLs, everybody is playing from the same sheet of music because they’re required to do so,” says Kevin Lewis, AAMVA’s director of Driver Programs.

Even though there is a standardized test to obtain a CDL, the number of CMV drivers is far fewer than noncommercial drivers. In 2014, there were around 5.7 million CMV drivers in the United States, according to FMCSA data. Yet, according to Statista, an online statistics portal, there were about 214 million noncommercial licensed drivers on the road.

Unlike the CDL system, however, NMDTS will not be regulated federally and there’s no requirement that jurisdictions must adopt any of its guidelines. NMDTS simply offers a complete, uniform testing system for driver license administrators from all jurisdictions. “Commercial testing is already there—they have the manual and it makes the process a lot smoother,” says Joan Saleh, Driver Services administrator in Washington, D.C. “It would definitely be helpful to have this type of guide for the noncommercial side.”

AAMVA has been developing NMDTS since the mid-2000s, with initial funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The call for a more uniform noncommercial testing system began to increase with the introduction of the Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) system, which allows young drivers (under age 18) to gradually obtain full driving privileges.

Unfortunately, statistics show that all entry-level drivers, especially teenagers, are overly represented in fatal car accidents. A more standardized way to test the abilities of novice drivers will help reduce these numbers. “If jurisdictions all have similar driving manuals and testing procedures, then we have more assurance that we’re collectively approaching public safety and licensing drivers in a like manner,” says Julie Knittle, assistant director of the Programs and Services Division in Washington State’s Department of Licensing. “One jurisdiction’s testing requirements could be significantly more or less than another jurisdiction, so you don’t know if you’re getting a driver that would meet your state’s standards.”

A Complete System

Under the current noncommercial testing system, each jurisdiction writes its own manual, determines the knowledge testing questions and creates the skills test. But in addition to the “basic rules of the road” included on the driving test, each jurisdiction also has required standards, laws or procedures that are specific to that state or province. The goal of NMDTS is not to mess with jurisdiction-specific information and requirements.

Instead, the focus of NMDTS is to create elements all can adopt that will fit within each jurisdiction’s time constraints for customer service. The length of the test is dependent on location, so rather than being granular and stating that the road test should be a set distance or time, the model establishes specific elements and maneuvers, such as number of left and right turns, driving on the expressway, which types of intersections to include, etc. These maneuvers should be consistent across jurisdictions, and the model follows the same concept for the knowledge and skills test.

NMDTS includes these five components and three subcomponents:

  • NMDTS Model Driver Manual
  • NMDTS Model GDL Parent/Mentor Guide
  • NMDTS Examiner Manual
  • Knowledge Test Item Pool
  • Driver License Test
    • Vehicle Safety Inspection
    • Basic Control Skills Test
    • Road Test


The guidelines are set up to be flexible and have an a-la-carte style. “They can be implemented all at once or in a phased-in approach,” Knittle says, “so a jurisdiction could adopt the model manual and the knowledge test, but they can implement the skills test at a later date.”

Ready for NMDTS

Even though most jurisdictions currently do not require drivers moving from one jurisdiction to another to retake the driver test in order to obtain a new license—mostly for customer convenience—NMDTS can create an environment in which state, provincial and international licensing agencies can be confident that drivers licensed by other jurisdictions were tested by the same standards. If jurisdictions have the same manuals and testing procedures, then there will be more assurance that jurisdictions are collectively approaching licensing and public safety in a like manner.

NMDTS will be released late this summer. While there’s no requirement to adopt the model, AAMVA’s hope is that each jurisdiction will review its testing system and opt to implement NMDTS standards in an effort to create consistency across jurisdiction lines, which will only enhance safety on the road.

“AAVMA does a very good job of creating best practices,” Saleh says. “If we’re doing something on our road test but the best practices say to do it differently, I’m very likely to say we’re going to make that change.”

As for Washington, Knittle says the state will review and assess its current practices as they compare to the model and then will have a discussion with policymakers and stakeholders to look at how NMDTS will ultimately help public safety. “Washington takes the best practices and research across the country very seriously, so we’re really excited about this being released and look forward to assessing our current program.”