Although Brett Tobin was born in Washington, he learned to drive in California, where he feels drivers are generally more skilled than those in his home state.
So he was surprised when he moved back about 25 years ago and promptly failed the driver’s license test, a two-part exam whose rigor recently helped get Washington named the hardest state in which to get a license.
“Then why do we have such terrible drivers?” mused the 49-year-old Tobin, who commutes between Tacoma and Carnation each day for work. “It’s true: no one in Washington knows how to drive.”
The distinction comes from a study by personal-injury law firm Siegfried & Jensen. Using state handbooks and public documents about the requirements of each state’s tests, the firm examined a variety of information, including the number of questions on the knowledge portion of the exam and the number of maneuvers tested in the skills portion.
The ratings also take into account the cost of getting a license, whether a state offers free retakes and whether a learner’s permit is required for applicants 18 and older, among other factors. Because the cost of testing in Washington varies by testing location, the study evaluated our state based on the typical cost of testing in Seattle, the most populous city.
“We all know that driving laws differ from one state to another, but this study shows the true extent of how this affects drivers’ abilities to obtain a license in the first place,” Ned Siegfried, of Siegfried & Jensen, said in a news statement. “What this means in practice is that passing your test on your first attempt in one state isn’t necessarily as easy in another part of the country.”
Washington’s difficulty score (80 out of a possible 100) was almost twice that of South Dakota, which was ranked the easiest with a score of 42. The study controlled for mitigating circumstances such as veteran status or disability.
Washington state Department of Licensing (DOL) spokesperson Christine Anthony said no one she talked to at the DOL had heard that Washington had the strictest license requirements in the nation.
In Washington, more people fail the written knowledge test than the driving-skills test, according to driving-school instructors, Anthony and DOL data.
In the first four months of 2019, about 77% of people who took the driving-skills portion of the test passed, regardless of whether the test was administered at one of the state Department of Licensing offices or through a private driver-training school.
However, only about half of the more than 84,000 people who took the knowledge test in that same time period passed on the first try, according to DOL data.
The knowledge test recently got more difficult: In 2016, the state added 15 questions, bringing the total to 40, Anthony said. And a new curriculum will roll out in August that addresses the important roles of decision-making and attitude in driving, she said.
Passing rates for the knowledge test were higher at private driving schools (55%) than at DOL offices (46%,) according to data provided by the DOL.
That rate is likely affected by the fact that many driving schools allow applicants to retake the test for free, while the DOL does not, said J.C. Fawcett of the Puget Sound-based Defensive Driving School.
At $85 for the license and test combined, the whole endeavor costs more in Washington than in any other state.
Just behind Washington in the rankings were Massachusetts, with a difficulty score of 77, and Maryland, with a 75.
Along with South Dakota, Ohio and Arkansas were rated easiest, with scores of 45 and 49, respectively. Road tests in South Dakota grade drivers on six driving maneuvers, the fewest in the nation.
Washington’s road test is the most comprehensive, covering 19 maneuvers, including parallel parking, parking on a hill and backing up around a curve.
Fawcett said he doesn’t know of any other state that tests drivers on the ability to back up around a corner. But that doesn’t mean he thinks the test should be easier.
“If anything, I think it should be harder,” said Fawcett, who has been teaching driving for more than 20 years. “People have the expectation that they will pass even if they don’t put in a lot of preparation, study or practice.”
Fawcett said he went to the United Kingdom recently to study the way the driving test is administered there and found it was significantly more rigorous than any test he’s seen in the U.S.
“They would not even think about taking the test unless they’d spent about 40 hours of one-on-one driving with an instructor,” he said. “That’s the expectation of how hard it is.”
Here in Washington, Fawcett said an average person will be able to pass the test if they study the driver’s-education handbook and have about 15 driving lessons with an instructor.
Diana Gordon of Elite School of Driving in Port Angeles agrees that the test is not that hard.
The people who struggle are those who haven’t put in the effort or the hours behind the wheel, or experienced drivers with bad habits, she said.
“People could actually simply do more studying,” she said. “It’s very important, because you are going to be driving for the rest of your life, and the habits you make now matter.”
Think you could pass the written driver’s test? Try these practice questions: