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New, longer Washington driver’s-license exam tackles pot, cellphones

It’s about to get tougher to earn a driver’s license in Washington state.

Officials at the state licensing department this month are rolling out a longer written test – 40 questions instead of 25.

The first overhaul of the exam in decades requires not only a more robust knowledge of longstanding traffic laws, but an understanding of the behind-the-wheel risks associated with smartphones and the state’s legalization of pot.

An example: “If you are under 21, you can be arrested for a THC/marijuana level of … .”

The answer is “more than 0.00 nanograms per milliliter of blood,” something every new driver will be expected to know.

“We wanted to add more information about impaired driving beyond the information about driving while intoxicated,” said Department of Licensing spokesman Brad Benfield. “With all the growth of cellphone use, we wanted to make sure that type of information was highlighted in the driver’s guide and test.”

Washington is in an unusual situation because marijuana is legal, but the decision to address smartphone distractions falls in line with changes the National Safety Council (NSC) has called for nationwide.

“We know people train to test, they study what they’re going to be tested on,” said NSC President and CEO Deborah Hersman. “They (teens) are just not good drivers, they’re new drivers. They’re learning a new skill, and adding any distractions is something we know takes away from people’s capacity to process what’s going on. Texting takes your eyes, hands and brain off the road.”

Other new exam questions highlight the prohibition on texting and the size of the fine for reading a text message while driving: $124.

A recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that teen drivers spend nearly a quarter of their driving time distracted.

“I think as times change, as risks change, we have to adapt,” said Hersman, a former chairwoman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “The advent of cellphones is not something I had to deal with when I was learning how to drive; they just weren’t available. With legalization of marijuana, it’s a sign of the times of what’s happening and what puts people at risk.”

Research is still in the early stages, and there have been inconsistent findings in determining a link between driving while under the influence of marijuana and an increased risk of crashing, according to an NSC report.

But, according to the AAA Foundation, one in six drivers involved in fatal crashes in Washington in 2014 had recently used marijuana, which is the most recent data available.

According to the NSC preliminary estimates, 567 people died in motor-vehicle crashes in Washington last year, a 21 percent increase over 2014. Nationally, the increase was 8 percent.

As they await more data, the NSC and state licensing department remain unsure of the reason for the surge in Washington state fatalities. But Hersman said that as the economy improves and more people buy vehicles, accidents increase.

Students will now need to get 32 of the 40 driver’s exam questions right to pass. The old test required 20 correct out of 25. In both cases, that’s 80 percent to pass.

Benfield said 60 to 70 percent of first-timers typically pass. He is unsure how the new test will change results.

The new material was incorporated into the driving-school curriculum issued by the state since early this year, and the new tests will debut Monday for first-time license seekers and those with expired licenses.

For one local driving school, the changes to the test are welcome despite the upcoming challenges for students.

“The old test didn’t have any questions on distractions,” said Nur Hassan, who has run MLK Simple Driving School in Seattle for three years. “Driving is very serious business, so people should not try to take it lightly or try to put in other distractions.”

Despite the changes in licensing regulations, the NSC said Washington still has room to improve safety precautions for teen drivers.

NSC spokeswoman Maureen Vogel pointed to the state law ordering new drivers off the road from 1 to 5 a.m. for their first year (unless a licensed driver 25 or older is with them), or until they turn 18, whichever comes first.

“Most fatal nighttime crashes involving teens happen before midnight,” Vogel said. Furthermore, it’s a difficult law to enforce, she said, because an officer cannot pull a driver over for it, only add it onto another violation.

The NSC also objects to Washington’s six-month period for permit holders, calling for it to be 12 months instead. And new drivers are allowed to have a young passenger in the car after six months, which the NSC would change to 12 months.

Exceptions are fine for parents and other adult drivers, Vogel said, but having one young passenger in a vehicle increases a teen driver’s fatal crash risk 44 percent.


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