A few hours after learning that Gov. Roy Cooper had signed a bill temporarily shortening the length of time required for holding a driving learner’s permit, Northwood sophomore Nellielou Errett …
Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Making high quality community journalism isn’t free — please consider supporting our journalism by subscribing to the News + Record today.
Unlimited Digital Access: $3.99/month
Print + Digital: $5.99/month
Editor's note: Driving license processes have been updated since this story was first posted. For the most up-to-date information, visit the state's DMV website.
A few hours after learning that Gov. Roy Cooper had signed a bill temporarily shortening the length of time required for holding a driving learner’s permit, Northwood sophomore Nellielou Errett decided to make a TikTok about it.
The video — captioned, “Thank you Roy!!!” — shows Errett in front of the PDF green screen of the bill, with the audio and captions: “I can finally get my driver’s license! You only need your learner’s permit for 6 months to get a driver’s license in 2021!”
Fittingly, Olivia Rodrigo’s hit debut single “Driver’s License” plays in the background.
“In my journalism class, the editor-in-chief came up with the idea of a TikTok and I thought it would be fun,” Errett, who is a part of Northwood High School’s student news magazine, Northwood Omniscient, said. “It took less than 20 minutes to film, edit and post the entire TikTok.”
The legislation, Senate Bill 69, was signed May 24 as a growing number of new drivers wait to get their licenses following pandemic delays. The law temporarily shortens the minimum length of time required for holding a driving learner’s permit before getting a license from 12 to six months; all other requirements are the same.
With the state Division of Motor Vehicles road tests and driving schools shut down due to COVID-19 until recently, many students have been unable to get their permits, despite meeting the state’s age requirement. These delays created a backlog of — and frustration for — thousands of students.
“North Carolina’s teen driver’s license requirements save lives, and as a state senator the Governor sponsored this national standard,” Cooper’s office said in a statement about the bill. “This temporary adjustment keeps life-saving training while smoothing a process disrupted by the pandemic.”
The lengthy delay played out in different ways for students and their parents. Some students took the classroom portion of driver’s ed in January or February of 2020, but still haven’t taken the behind-the-wheel portion required before a learner’s permit can be issued. Others became eligible to take driver’s ed during the pandemic and haven’t gotten into a class yet, while some who have done both portions are waiting for an appointment with the DMV.
The bill maintains the requirement that a new driver complete 60 hours of supervised driving with a permit, in addition to driver’s ed and 30 hours of formal instruction. The only change is that those 60 hours can occur over six months, rather than the previous 12 months. The change is set to expire Dec. 31, 2021.
Northwood’s Errett said the bill is “definitely something (she’s) been looking forward to.” She learned about it from a friend, who’d also received her permit later than usual due to the pandemic. Errett took driver’s ed in February 2020, but didn’t get a call until last September to get her six hours of driving with an instructor.
“I got my permit in October, and have had my permit for almost eight months,” she said.
Under the new provisions of bill, she’s now eligible to get her limited driver’s license.
“I’ve also always wanted to drive on my own since I was little so I am excited for the bill,” Errett said. “I can finally drive myself to work, to my friends’ houses, school, school events, etc. I am definitely excited for the overall independence that comes overall with a license.”
Though Errett, 16, understands some people are concerned that six months is not enough time to practice driving, she thinks the road test alleviates concern in that regard. Many of her friends already received their licenses, but those who hadn’t were also excited about the bill.
“The few people I have talked to are really elated to get their license and to have some more independence,” she said. “The friend who told me about the bill also has a job so this would be helpful for them also because of the fact that they could drive themselves to work now.”
Chatham parent Kimrey Rhinehardt said the independence that comes from having your license is important for teens, particularly during the pandemic.
Her daughter Tyler completed her driver’s ed road hours right before the pandemic and was able to get her permit in April 2020. She was able to get her limited provisional license, which has a 9 p.m. driving curfew, this past April.
“It’s been really mentally challenging for everyone, but a lot of students are really suffering,” Rhinehardt said. “And to be able to get in the car and drive to a park at 3 p.m. on your own, just observing my daughter and her ability to be independent, and do things that are safe, it’s helped. That helps.”
She’s concerned then, for students caught up in the delay. Her daughter is “one of the lucky ones,” she said.
“But there’s already a backlog,” she said. “I mean, the concern is there’s so many people backed up, how are they possibly going to accommodate that?”
Jaime Detzi, a Chatham resident who is also the director of Chatham Education Foundation, said her daughter, Brooke Detzi, finally got her permit last August; she had become eligible the previous April. Now, according to the new state bill, her daughter will be eligible to get her license a few months earlier.
Detzi ended up paying for private driver’s ed instruction after the class her daughter signed up for in March 2020 was canceled.
“These things are so expensive. I think it was like $600,” she said. “This is just one more example of how having money gets you access. Not that it wasn’t challenging to pay the $600 — it wasn’t like a drop in the bucket, which is why we weren’t doing it to begin with because it is a nice service offered by the public school system.”
In addition to the costs of private instruction, Detzi said there are other non-financial costs, too, such as the time required to take your child to the DMV.
As with many other aspects of the pandemic, Detzi said this process highlights equity concerns, even if the process is frustrating for all students.
“Those with means can still find a way to get around the arduous process of state regulations and the way the public schools are funded,” she said, “but kids that probably need their driver’s license more than my child, because they’re working or their family’s working multiple jobs, are those kids that didn’t get it yet.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.