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KARE 11 Investigates: Skip the line? Lawmaker questions ‘unfair’ driving test system

We discovered a hidden system of “standing appointments” given to certain driving schools, where students can pay more to be driven to the test and jump the line.

ARDEN HILLS, Minn. — Long before the sun comes up, you will find long lines outside metro area driver license testing stations, the product of a system so backed up that getting an appointment can take months. The long waits have prompted outrage from test takers and from lawmakers.  

But not everyone has such a long wait.

KARE 11 discovered a hidden system of “standing appointments” given to certain driving schools at a handful of metro locations. Their students can pay more to be driven to the test and jump the line.

“This is totally offline and nobody is aware of it,” said Rep. Linda Runbeck who sits on the House Transportation Committee. She was shocked when KARE 11 told her about the standing appointments.

“This is rife for corruption,” Runbeck said.

Although officials at the Department of Public Safety say the system has been in place for years, even a long-time driving school owner was surprised by these standing appointments. Linda Awalt of Buckle Up Driving School says she didn’t know they existed until she discovered she’d been shut out.

Awalt thinks the system is unfair to her – and to her students. “They need to get a job or they need to keep a job, they have small children, they need to get places. And they need to get into a road test immediately.”

Spending hours in line

In the Twin Cities, if you try to schedule a driving test in advance you’ll likely have to wait for months. So, some people take their chances by showing up in person - hoping to get one of a small number of "walk in" slots.

To see why the issue is so contentious, you only need to head to one of the seven metro area testing locations early in the morning.

KARE 11 visited the Arden Hills DMV at 5:30 a.m. on a late summer morning. Cars were stretched down the block outside the locked gates. Many people were asleep in their vehicles.

One teenage driver said he’d arrived at 11 o’clock the night before. He was seventh in line.

“The line is crazy,” complained Mohamed-Wali. He said he had come at 1:30 a.m. and spent the night.

“This is unconscionable,” Runbeck said of the backups.

The Arden Hills location doesn’t technically open until 8 a.m., but long before that the gates opened, and some lucky testers were allowed in. But by 7:45 a.m., as the line snaked around the building, a supervisor walked car to car telling people who arrived before dawn that they were out of luck.

“We’re not taking any more walk ins at this time,” the supervisor said to frustrated drivers.

Debbie Carlson had been waiting since just after 4 a.m. with her teenage son. “People work. It’s not like you can come here and sit down here every day,” she said.

“Ay ay ay,” Tiffeny Barba exclaimed as the supervisor gave her the bad news. "I’m in line for 3 hours already, and then I’m going to have to come back and wait another 3 hours!”

'Special arrangement' to jump the line

As the frustrated drivers left, others zipped right up into the lines especially for people with appointments. Some had made the appointment online months earlier.

But KARE 11 watched as others pulled up in marked cars from driving schools – schools with so-called standing appointments each day at Arden Hills.

How do the special appointments work?

Linda Awalt, who owns Buckle Up Driving School, said she learned about them when potential students began calling and telling her that other driving schools could get them in quickly to take a road test.  

She couldn’t. Her students wait months like everyone else. So, posing as a customer, she began calling around to local driving schools.

“They have special arrangements with the DMV at Arden Hills,” she says the schools told her.   

KARE 11 found one driving school website even advertising that they have standing appointments. They charge an extra fee for access to those appointments.

When Linda went to Arden Hills to ask for the same “special arrangement” she says she was told it wasn’t open to her.

So, she complained to the Department of Driver and Vehicle Services. The Deputy Director wrote, “DVS treats all driving schools equally.”

“That’s obviously not true,” Linda said. “I’ve lost many, many customers. I know it. The state doesn’t really care.”

KARE 11 asked the Department of Public Safety for a list of all driving schools with standing appointments and found 23 had arrangements at Arden Hills, Plymouth or Eagan. No other DMV’s in the state participate.

'Absolutely unfair'

Rep. Runbeck was so outraged when KARE 11 told her about the system of special appointments, she decided to check for herself. She says she went to her local driving school posing as a parent and asked if she could get an expedited appointment.  

“He said yes, you can pay another hundred dollars for that,” she said. 

Asked if that seemed unfair she replied, “Absolutely unfair.”

“Why should some people get special treatment just because they are willing to pay more or find out about the fact that they could pay more,” Runbeck told KARE 11. “It’s just on the face of it really wrong. Really wrong.”

What’s more, she believes the long wait times are illegal. State law specifically says that a person seeking a road test must be able to take one within two weeks.

Runbeck says she wants leaders from DPS to come before the Transportation Committee and answer questions about both issues.

How did these special arrangements come to be? Who is in charge? Why haven’t they been offered to every driving school? These are questions KARE 11 asked the Department of Public Safety which oversees Driver and Vehicle Services.  

Department officials declined an on-camera interview, but told us one in five appointments at Arden Hills, Plymouth and Eagan are reserved for driving school appointments. In a statement they said, “at the request of DPS-DVS, Management Analysis and Development (MAD) at Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) is conducting a study to determine whether ‘standing appointments’ help or hinder the driving exam process. Concern about the practice of standing appointments was raised internally at DVS in late 2018.”

DVS says it put the brakes on any new standing appointments last year while they study whether the system helps or hinders long wait times.

A department spokesperson said they hope to have a report on standing appointments by November.  

Meanwhile frustrated drivers wait - and anger goes into overdrive.

“It affects my livelihood. It affects my families. It affects customers that really need a driver’s license,” Awalt said.

Do you have a tip for KARE 11 Investigates? Send it to investigations@kare11.com

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