Early last August, Julia Riddick learned that she was pregnant. Later that month, the Ottawa resident went online to book a road test to get her G2 driver’s licence. As she had numerous prenatal appointments to attend and concerns about the safety of public transportation during the pandemic, Riddick says, getting the licence that would allow her to drive independently seemed particularly critical: “Once I became pregnant, I had this realization that I need to be able to drive myself and baby, especially in the pandemic. My partner can’t come to appointments.” She was surprised to learn that the earliest availability in the Ottawa area was in February 2021 — but she booked the appointment, glad that it would at least be before the birth of her child.
With Ontario’s Boxing Day lockdown, Riddick’s February road test was cancelled, and the province’s licensing agency informed her that the soonest her test could be rescheduled for was June 2021. “The frustration is mostly the independence factor,” she says, noting that, before the pandemic (and her pregnancy), she got around easily by cycling, using public transit, taking Ubers, and carpooling. (Full disclosure: Riddick is an acquaintance of the author.) “I’ve always been able to get myself places, but now that I am going to be caring for a child, I want to be able to get them there in the safest way possible.”
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Riddick’s road test was one of around 294,400 that have been cancelled in Ontario since the pandemic began. While the cancellations and delays present a problem for teenagers who’ve just reached the legal age, they’re also creating serious complications for others, including newcomers, those living with disabilities, and new and expectant parents — some of whom are calling on the province to clear the backlog.
When the pandemic began last March, driver’s licensing ground to a halt in Ontario. G2 tests did not resume until August; tests for the full G licence restarted the following month. However, the reopening was short-lived: in late November, centres in grey zones, namely the GTA, stopped running road tests. With the provincewide lockdown in December, all test centres followed suit. (Road tests restarted in mid-February at centres that weren’t under lockdown.) In the 54 weeks since centres first closed, G tests have been available for a total of about 11 weeks in Toronto and just over 22 weeks in Kingston.
Drivers describe waiting up to five months for a road test, having three or more tests cancelled in the past year, and constantly checking for tests online, only to see zero slots at their local test centre. On March 29, TVO.org checked for G road tests at 11 test centres in eastern Ontario using the provincial booking website. Nine did not show a single available test in the next 12 months. Of the two centres with available tests, the earliest dates were July 6 and September 17.
Last week’s shutdown kicked off another onslaught of cancellations: all road tests have been called off until further notice. (“Inside services,” such as G1 tests, which are entirely written, as well as commercial road tests, such as those for trucking, will continue to be offered.) Test centres are operated under the name DriveTest by a private company called Serco Canada Inc., under contract with the Ministry of Transportation. An MTO spokesperson tells TVO.org via email that, once road tests resume, the ministry will address the backlog as soon as possible: “Ontario will work with its service provider to hire additional driver examiners to increase the availability of testing.” Although DriveTest is required to provide commercial and passenger road-test appointments within 42 days, the spokesperson says, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the standard is not being enforced.
For Maureen Walters, the cancellations have taken a toll on both her finances and well-being. The 58-year-old Scarborough resident lives with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis and started working toward her G2 about a year ago as walking became increasingly difficult. Walters already owns a car, given to her by her brother, but it sits unused. Since the pandemic began, Walters has had four tests cancelled, including one last week. The next available date is in September, she says.
Walters, who gets by on disability-support payments, says that the money she spent on driving lessons feels like a waste, as her lessons have been broken up over the past year and won’t be fresh in her mind when the time finally comes for her test. “I paid over $600 for my instruction; I can’t add more days,” she says. “It took me years to save up for that, with the help of my brother — he helped me pay.”
After her last test was cancelled, Walters says, she stayed up until 2 a.m. on the DriveTest website looking for possible openings. “It’s just so frustrating; I have been in tears, because it’s something you look forward to. I was proud of myself. I faced a fear. I felt confident. I was all gung-ho to do it,” she says. “I'm just losing confidence in this. I have no money, you know. It's just awful.” In the meantime, Walters says, her plans — to move from Toronto to eastern Ontario, get a job that involves driving, and be able to drive her disabled son to appointments — are on hold.
For Iuri Rezende Souza — who emigrated to southwestern Ontario from Brazil about two months before the pandemic hit — not being able to drive doesn’t just make running errands difficult in a country where he knows few people: “I mostly felt like a prisoner at home,” he says. Although he quickly obtained his G1, after taking driving lessons last summer, the first available G2 test was in December — and it was cancelled. By January, he was checking the DriveTest website every day, looking for an opening.
Rezende Souza argues that, given the backlog, road tests should be prioritized for those who need them most: people who depend on driving for employment, are the only driver in their household, or have had tests cancelled due to the lockdowns. “A lot of things are assumed,” he says. “Not only 16- and 17-year-olds are taking the driving-licence test. People who are expected to be independent are also taking it.” Licensing, he says, should be considered an essential service in the same way that legal services are. The ministry spokesperson says that due to the “uncertainty of the current situation” and high demand for road tests, the ministry is unable to prioritize those with cancelled tests.
Redouane, who asked that only his first name be used, raises another issue. “I work in York Region, and it’s not easy to take three buses [to get there] — especially on snowy days,” he says. “I have to work only where [the Toronto Transit Commission] is available, even if I see many job offers in other cities, like Mississauga and Brampton.” Redouane emigrated to North York from Algeria last August with his family and, although he passed his G1 immediately, he’s since had several road tests cancelled. He questions why DriveTest centres are shut down at all, especially as taxi and Uber drivers are still operating.
Because of the April 3 shutdown, Rezende Souza’s second G2 booking — scheduled for early April — was cancelled, too. Hours after Premier Doug Ford’s announcement, he was on the DriveTest website, which he says must have been flooded with people trying to book tests, as it was lagging. After receiving multiple error messages, he managed to book a test for the end of July.
Jennifer French, the New Democratic Party MPP for Oshawa and official Opposition critic for infrastructure, transportation and highways, told TVO.org prior to the latest shutdown announcement that Ontarians who have been unable to book tests have contacted her office consistently in the last year: “People are putting their jobs and their lives on hold while they wait for a test. The government needs to clear the backlog and they need to do so safely.”
Without a G2, Riddick, whose baby was born April 1, has relied on her partner to drive her to appointments. She’ll be doing that for the next two months, too, as she awaits her test. “It’s kind of wild to think that 40 weeks is the average gestation period for a baby,” she says, “and I couldn’t get my G2 licence in that time.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.