Confusion over a new Virginia law requiring that students provide proof of school enrollment before they are issued a learner's permit to drive has sent students careening between Department of Motor Vehicles offices and area schools, where school officials initially were unsure just what to issue.
The law, which went into effect July 1, is designed to tie a very powerful incentive -- driving -- to staying in school. It is modeled after nationally recognized anti-dropout legislation in West Virginia, although not so strict, and requires school officials to provide proof that students are enrolled or that they have been counseled on the importance of finishing school.
Because the law was enacted during the summer, little could be done to notify students who were heading to DMV offices, often with their parents, to get their learner's permits. To compound the problem, officials at the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond said they were late in mailing paperwork needed to comply with the new law to more than 400 public and private schools with high school students.
"It happened at a bad time for students, that was the key," said James Foudriat, a spokesman for the department. "It's a whole lot easier to get the word out to students during the school year than in the summer."
Students are eligible to get a learner's permit when they reach 15 years and 8 months of age, although some wait until they are older. To get a learner's permit, a student must be accompanied by a licensed driver who is at least 18 and must take a multiple-choice test on rules of the road. An estimated 75,000 Virginians apply for learner's permits each year, said Jeanne Chenault, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles in Richmond.
The new law has been publicized in a statewide newsletter mailed to school administrators, but where do most students find out about the measure?
"I think that the process would probably be first explained at the DMV," Foudriat said. "You might want to talk to some students who have lived through it."
Mary Putnam, an assistant manager at the DMV office on Lee Highway in Fairfax, said she could not estimate the number of people who had been turned away because they did not have the proper endorsement. A visit last week to the office yielded no students applying for learner's permits.
Although there are no signs advertising the legislation in the building, Putnam said she sympathizes with those who are unfamiliar with the law. She said she tries to keep an employee in the lobby to ensure that people have all the forms they need.
At Annandale High School, Principal Raymond Watson said this week that there was considerable confusion last month about what documentation was acceptable and that several students had visited him to complain.
"In some cases they bounced back and forth between the DMV and the school trying to acquire the proper endorsement," Watson said.
Fairfax County schools spokeswoman Delores Bohen said that although she had not heard of problems implementing the law, students can't wait for their first days behind the wheel.
"Driver's ed for teenagers is such a big issue," Bohen said. "The minute they are old enough, nothing should get in their way to getting this license."
Arlene Cundiff, a state driver education supervisor, said she "commiserates every way in the world" with students who have had problems and is looking forward to the beginning of school, when students can be told about the new law.
"I think the General Assembly has had a good idea in their intent, it's just a case that some of the logistics have not been easy to iron out," Cundiff said. And, she added, it seems that most of the problems have subsided. "We've gotten most of the major questions addressed," she said. "My telephone is not ringing nearly as much as it was a couple of weeks ago."