EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
New drivers from Ontario’s big cities are flocking to small-town test centres like Orillia's to take their driver’s licence tests — and have higher collision rates than their peers who were tested on urban roads, Ministry of Transportation data shows.
Truck driver training in Orillia has been 'problematic' for nearby residents of the test centre. Click here to read that article.
The province’s auditor general published a report on driver testing Wednesday.
Some 42 per cent of drivers who took their road tests in the Orangeville test centre were from Brampton, for example, compared with only 2 per cent who were actually from Orangeville.
In a 15-month period starting in January of 2022, over 1,000 new drivers from the GTA travelled all the way to Hawkesbury in the lower Ottawa Valley, a five-hour drive, to take their driver’s tests.
Rural test centres “in many cases have less complex road test routes and higher pass rates,” the report said.
“These novice drivers were involved in more collisions when compared to novice drivers who took their road tests at the DriveTest Centre closest to where they lived.
“Despite noting this trend, the Ministry has not analyzed why this is happening, its impact on road safety or whether controls should be put in place to encourage novice drivers to take road tests in the areas where they live, work or study, and will likely be doing most of their driving.”
Residents in Guelph had complained to Serco, the company supervising the tests, saying the volume of drivers taking road tests there had become a local traffic nuisance. Only 14 per cent of people taking tests in Guelph are actually from Guelph, the audit said.
Road test pass rates vary widely across Ontario, from 89 per cent in Owen Sound and 87 per cent in Kenora to 63 per cent in Mississauga and 57 per cent in Brampton. Though there are exceptions, test centres in smaller communities usually have higher pass rates and vice versa.
The AG also criticized Ontario’s practice of letting student drivers who fail the written test repeat it as many times as they like on the same day.
Almost 10 per cent of drivers who passed the written test did so after more than three failures within one visit, while 1 per cent, or 19,000 people, eventually passed after more than five failures on the same day.
Allowing unlimited rewrites one after the other “defeats the purpose of the test,” the AG points out, because there are a limited number of questions, and soon the new driver in effect learns the test, “rather than learning the rules of the road in Ontario.”
Other provinces are stricter: B.C. requires a seven-day wait period to retake the written test after failing, and Quebec requires a 28-day wait. Saskatchewan and Alberta limit individuals to one written test a day.
The AG also said that drivers with a record of suspensions need more scrutiny than they get at present.
Only drivers convicted in court for serious traffic offences are required to take retraining courses, though in 2022 drivers who received two or more suspensions in the previous year – indicating a pattern of less serious offences — had a fatal collision rate six times higher than the general driver population.
“The ministry does not identify drivers who may be of higher risk to cause collisions based on a history of repeat driving offences and suspensions and require them to take retraining courses,” the report charged.
The AG also questioned the standards of road tests for a G-class licence.
The road test was made easier in January of 2022 as a way of responding to pandemic-related testing backlogs, which at one time reached 500,000 new drivers. The "reduced G" test was significantly less challenging than its predecessor: parallel parking, a roadside stop and a three-point turn were taken out entirely, while the number of right turns and left turns were halved.
Although the test backlog was cleared by October 2022, the original standard was never restored, the report points out.
The Ministry of Transportation has defended the new lower standard by pointing to the fact that the pass rate has remained unchanged, but the AG's report points to the fact that the examiners are expected to deliver consistent pass rates between 65 per cent and 75 per cent, and are subject to a performance review if they don't.
The AG also pointed to the practice of "route training," in which students are allowed by driving instructors to practice on the actual route that will be used for the test. Route training is frowned on, since the test is supposed to at least some extent represent the challenges of real driving conditions.
The ministry fails to regulate this, the report said:
"In some municipalities, such as Brampton, municipal bylaw officers patrolled test routes and issued fines to driving instructors who lingered around exam routes. However, the ministry does not govern or oversee which routes driving instructors use to train their students, something it views as a consumer-protection matter."
The AG also called the ministry's supervision of Serco, the company administering the tests, and its parent company Plenary, "ineffective,' and pointed out that its contract had been renewed in a non-competitive process despite "issues of poor performance and disputes over penalties" related to the previous 10-year contract.
That contract, from 2013 to 2023, was marked by what the AG called a "consistent failure to improve service levels over time," an assessment of $36 million in non-performance penalties — of which only $6.2 million was actually paid — and what the AG called "numerous performance failures."
"As of September 2023, when the 10-year contract term ended, the ministry’s assessment was that Plenary had not fully fulfilled 15 deliverables in the 2013 contract. These deliverables represented services that the ministry paid for and was of the view that it had not received," the report says.
For its part, the AG called the ministry's compliance audits of Serco "ineffective and incomplete."
For example, the ministry's site visits didn't include direct observations of road tests: "This meant that this centrally important facet of licensing was not reviewed by the ministry."
The 2023 contract with Plenary/Serco is for two years, with a possible one-year extension and up to a possible further year for a transition period.