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A welcome change

Anyone who received their first driver's license at 16 or 17 can vividly recall the final behind-the-wheel driving test — a rite of passage for teenagers, but not necessarily a pleasant experience. A few minutes behind the wheel could result in a shiny new license and a sense of triumph, or the crushing humiliation of failure and the need to retake the test after a mandatory waiting period.

As of this month, thanks to the Oregon Legislature, state-certified driver education instructors are authorized to give teenagers the behind-the-wheel test. That's a welcome change, and one that should mean better-prepared and safer young drivers.

Until Jan. 1, teenagers had to make an appointment at the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division for their final test with a license examiner. Driver education courses were available and recommended — and a certificate of completion could lower insurance premiums for new drivers. But the final test came at the DMV.

That pulse-pounding ordeal is still available — and still required, if a teen doesn't take a driver-ed course from an approved instructor — but it now can be avoided.

Beginning this month, driver education instructors approved by the Department of Transportation are authorized to administer the final driving test and to issue a hard plastic course-completion card the teen driver presents to the DMV. The teen still must pass the written test and comply with all other requirements, and the license still is a provisional one with restrictions based on age.

This makes financial sense because eventually it could mean the state is able to employ fewer examiners. It makes sense from a safety standpoint because it should prompt more teenagers to enroll in driver-ed courses, which have been shown to produce safer drivers.

Finally, it makes sense from a humanitarian standpoint. A driving instructor who has spent 12 hours in a car with a student and then administers a thorough test has a much better sense of that student's driving abilities than a state employee who spends a few minutes testing a nervous teenager he or she has never met.

The new testing procedure applies only to new drivers under 18. Applicants 18 and older still have to be tested at the DMV. And only ODOT-approved instructors are authorized to give driving tests. In Jackson County, those are Rogue Community College's High School Driver Training program and the course offered by a private company, Southern Oregon Driver Education Inc.

Not every new law is something to celebrate, but this one just makes sense.