Ocean Lakes High School senior Elijah Bell stared at his computer screen as he tried to decipher the symbol in front of him. A road sign was waiting to be identified, an obstacle between him and his learner’s permit.
“I can’t get help or anything. It’s a test,” Bell remembers thinking. He kept staring at the screen, hoping the answer would reveal itself. It didn't.
“When I finished that section, it told me I failed,” Bell said. He left the DMV defeated and without a permit.
It's been a year and a half, and Bell hopes to retake the test soon with a little more success.
“I’ve actually studied,” he said. “When I took it the first time, I didn’t study at all.”
The permit test is only one step in what can be a long process and confusing for teenagers to acquire a Virginia license.
While want-to-be drivers may not like the process, there is strong support for it.
“The public in general has gotten a lot more aware about driving safety,” said Bill Mctyre, a driving instructor and owner of Cruz-N-Thru Driving School. The process ensures drivers have been taught the rules of the road and the state's driving laws, he said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good system in place.”
The first step toward a drivers license is a semester-long driver education course, typically the sophomore year of high school. The course focuses on "safe driving attitudes, skills development and appropriate responses to hazards," according to the Virginia Department of Education website. Students receive a workbook with the written information they need to learn to get behind the wheel.
The course also is offered online. That's the route Cox High School senior Sydney Manlove took the summer before her sophomore year.
“I felt really good about being able to go online and be able to look at all the signs,” Manlove said. “The signs were the main thing I was worried about.”
The next step: getting a learners permit.
Teens are eligible to get their learners permit at 15½ years old. At a DMV office, they must complete a 10-question test on highways signs with a perfect score, and a general knowledge test with a score of 80% or higher. Pass both and they can start driving.
Nine months later, teens are eligible to get their license. While some states require just a simple driving test, teens in Virginia must complete a five- to seven-day driving course called Behind the Wheel.
A Behind the Wheel instructor can be found at the high school or through a private driving school. That choice generally comes down to cost and convenience. Once a driving school and instructor are chosen, the student presents the materials required to start driving.
“They have to pass their classroom portion and get their green card,” said Mctyre, who has been a driving instructor since 2011. The green card is signed by the student's driver education teacher and certifies that the student has completed and passed the classroom portion.
Behind the Wheel driving instruction is usually seven days with 50 minutes of driving and 50 minutes of observation each day. The observation requirement demands a partner for the course: students take turns driving and observing their partner.
On the sixth day of the course, a blue sheet is sent home to parents. By signing it, parents certify their student has driven 45 hours with a permit outside of driving school.
“When the parents sign that form, they’re saying the child has done the 45 hours,” Mctyre explains.
The driving test is administered on the seventh day of the driving school. If the student passes the test, the instructor will validate the blue sheet and it will become a temporary license when paired with the permit.
But there's more: The student has to go to court to receive a physical card, and that court date typically takes a few months. But with that license comes freedom.
“Say, like, I want to go get food,” Bell said. “I could just take myself to go get food.”