It took two months and around $175 for Vivian Tran to get her driver's license in the summer of 2020.
Tran said she scheduled her written test in May and took it at the DMV in June – only to learn she had to go somewhere else for the road test. She eventually secured a walk-in test at a private driving school in July, though she had to wait five hours to take it. Tran then traveled from Aurora to Boulder to find an available DMV to process her test, finally getting her license at the end of July.
“It was such a hassle,” Tran told Colorado Politics. “It became this super long process of having to go through different companies. The logistics of it are so confusing for anybody.”
Before COVID-19, Tran's experience would have gone much differently, but the Colorado DMV stopped providing free driving tests in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic and it has no plans of reinstating the tests. That means, to get a license, Coloradans must go to the DMV to take the written permit test, find a separate third-party provider to pay to take the road test, and then return to the DMV to be issued the license.
For many, this new process can take days or weeks to accomplish and cost up to hundreds of dollars, making the ordeal of dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles – already infamous nationwide for being cumbersome, difficult to navigate and dilatory – even worse for aspiring drivers in Colorado.
Before it stopped offering driving tests, the DMV provided the tests for free, though drivers still paid the $18.52 permit fee and $30.87 processing fee.
Now, drivers must pay those fees on top of the costs of testing at private companies. Tests typically cost between $55 and $105 depending on the company, and those prices have increased since the DMV ended their free tests.
DriveSafe, the largest driving school in the state, raised its driving test fee from $79 in 2019 to $105 today, according to the company’s website. That means, a DriveSafe customer would pay over $154, counting the DMV fees, to get their driver’s license. If the customer fails the test and has to retake it, that individual would pay nearly $225 for the license, including DriveSafe’s $55 retesting fee and the DMV’s $15 fee for failed tests.
Ben Baron, founder of DriveSafe, said it is important to remember that the state used tax dollars to fund the DMV driving tests, a funding source not available to private driving schools.
“Private companies bear a lot of costs to be able to do the tests,” Baron said. "The employees have to be paid, benefits have to be paid, cars need to be obtained to do the tests. ... It is not just raising prices just to make more money. That's not really how we approach it.”
Baron said the company’s decision to raise prices has nothing to do with the DMV no longer providing driving tests. Instead, he pointed to rising costs of employees, rent and gasoline, in part. He said though demand for tests has “significantly” increased since the DMV stopped providing them, it hasn’t caused the company to make any changes that it wouldn’t have done already, such as hiring more staff.
However, for many companies, price increases appear to be directly related to driving tests becoming only available through private driving schools.
Western Slope Driving Institute raised its driving test price from $55 in 2018 to $85 today, after previously raising costs by only $5 from 2015 to 2018. Similarly, prices at American Driving Academy, where Tran took her test, rose from between $55 and $50 in 2019 to between $79 and $69 now. Previously, the company had raised its fees by only $10 since 2014.
Besides just the high price of initial tests, it's unclear whether students are more or less likely to fail driving tests at private companies — as charging students more to do a retake would likely benefit companies' bottom line.
Every driving school Colorado Politics contacted, including DriveSafe, declined to share their pass-fail rates. Data from the Colorado DMV shows that, in 2018 and 2019, 88% of driving tests taken at third-party companies were passed, compared to 76% taken at the DMV. However, the DMV could not separate the data by first-tries and retakes, making it impossible to compare the initial pass-fail rates.
Despite outrage from some community members, DMV spokesman Derek Kuhn said “there are no plans” for the DMV to provide free driving tests again.
Kuhn said the DMV initially stopped offering driving tests in April 2020 because of health concerns in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that June, the DMV was directed to permanently cut its spending by 10% due to state budget cuts, causing the DMV to give up $1 million in personal services or 42 full-time employees, Kuhn said.
“To avoid negatively impacting in-office customer service and to safeguard employees, the DMV permanently pivoted from driving skills tests,” Kuhn said. “Since the move from offering state-conducted driving skills tests, the DMV has reallocated staff positions and no longer has certified driving skills testers.”
However, driving tests could still return to the DMV.
State Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, said she intends to sponsor a bill during the next legislative session to force the DMV to bring the tests back.
Kipp said she didn’t know the state stopped providing driving tests until December 2021, when a constituent emailed her upset about spending $150 for his son’s driving test. Kipp brought up the issue during the SMART Act hearings in January and during the budget debate in March, but nothing came of it. Now, she’s taking action herself, she said.
“It’s terrible. It's unacceptable,” Kipp said. “Here we are trying to save Coloradans all kinds of money and we're making it unattainable for some people, especially young, poor kids, to get driver's licenses.”
The higher cost of getting a driving test is occurring at a time of record-setting inflation, spiking prices of homes and a general sense of how unaffordable living in Colorado has become, particularly in metro Denver.
During the last session, Gov. Jared Polis and legislators enacted a series of bills they said would save Coloradans money, including House Bill 1351 to delay the start of a gas tax increase and to decrease vehicle registration fees. But the new costs to get a driver's license easily wipe out any savings from the bill, which lawmakers estimated would work out to about $5.55 in savings for annual vehicle registration fees and $7.20 in savings for gas per Coloradan.
Kipp said her bill, which is still being drafted, would likely increase driver’s license fees by $2 to give the DMV enough funding to restart the tests. She said DMV officials told her it would cost around $14 million to bring the tests back.
Kipp also said the current driving test system could be violating state law.
Though the state statute does not specify initial fees for driving tests, it mandates that retaking the test cannot cost more than $15 — it costs more than that at virtually every private driving school. Kipp said DMV officials don’t believe they have the authority to set the rates of private companies, but that they would also decline to set the rates even if they could out of fear the companies would leave and lower testing capacity.
“Nobody seems interested in solving the problem,” Kipp said. “We could easily do it the way they used to do it and spread the cost amongst everybody who gets driver's licenses and renewals. But everybody's so focused on saving money in one place, we don't care, apparently, that we're charging people out the wazoo in another. So, I guess I have to run a bill.”
Though Kuhn with the DMV described ending driving tests as purely a funding issue, he defended the plan to use private companies as a permanent solution. Kuhn said the DMV is on track to issue more than 1.3 million driver’s licenses, instruction permits and I.D. cards this year, matching or exceeding the transactions completed in 2019 before the DMV stopped providing driving tests.
He also boasted of the state’s 170 driving schools. However, of the 168 driving schools listed on the DMV website, 43 are for "Alive at 25" courses exclusively and do not conduct driving tests. The remaining 125 driving schools consist of only 73 companies, at least 29 of which do not provide driving tests at all or only offer the tests to students in specific school districts or training programs.
Baron of DriveSafe said he has “no opinion” on whether the state should provide driving tests again, though he said he perceives the state as being “happy to not have the responsibility of testing."
"If the state were to move back to testing, it would have a larger impact on the driving schools that heavily rely on testing for their revenue than it would for us,” Baron said. "We are primarily a driver's education that also offers tests. Most of our families have always chosen to test with us. Students have always appreciated that it's a more relaxed environment, more supportive, friendlier, easier to schedule.”
A preference for driving schools is evident in Colorado. In 2018 and 2019, before the DMV stopped offering driving tests, 93,288 driving tests were taken at third-party companies, compared to only 48,883 tests taken at the DMV, according to state data. Private companies often offer driving education, making it convenient for a student to get lessons and take the test at the same company.
Jenn Senft Hamann said she brought both of her sons to take their driving tests at private companies, before and after the DMV stopped providing tests. In June, Senft Hamann’s 16-year-old son took his test at DriveSafe after previously taking driver’s education with the company.
“I don't even know any other way to get their driving class. When I was young, we did it at school and they don't offer that anymore,” Senft Hamann said. “Besides the fact that it's expensive, it was fine. My son seemed to enjoy it and got something out of his drives. But it would be nice to not have to spend that kind of money for kids to learn how to drive.”
The DriveSafe package Senft Hamann’s son used — including a driver’s education course, six hours of driving lessons and a permit and license test — costs $629 today, according to DriveSafe’s website.
While driving schools may work for some people, the state, by not providing driving tests at the DMV, is hurting residents who cannot afford these high prices or figure out the new difficult and time consuming process, said Elizabeth Bennett. Bennett's husband, Francisco, got his license in May after he was made eligible during his green card application process.
Even though the couple is familiar with bureaucratic processes and knew the DMV wasn’t giving tests, Bennett said the experience was still "daunting.”
"We’ve made a process that was relatively easy so hard to navigate,” Bennett said. “We've just gone completely backwards and made it next to impossible for anyone who doesn't have the privilege of being educated or middle class or having the experience to know how to get through these systems.”
Bennett said she arranged with Conahan's Driving School ahead of time to assure Francisco could take his driving test with them on the same day as his written test at the DMV — an arrangement not always possible given that some schools won’t accept appointments until a student has passed the written test and gotten their permit. Even then, she said the lengthy process still forced Francisco to take two days off of work without pay, and cost over $150, including $80 cash only for the test.
“This is a systemic barrier to access something that is a critical part of our society,” Bennett said. “Thinking about how many people could find themselves here and have no way of figuring out the system or, frankly, paying these astronomical fees. It made me angry on behalf of our marginalized populations.”