Andre Wilkerson wanted to make it easier for people in the Greater Lehigh Valley to take a driving test and get a driver’s license.
But the process has been anything but easy for him and his company, AW Driving School and Testing Center in Allentown.
“It cost me over $130,000 but there’s definitely a need in the community,” said Wilkerson, who is CEO and owner of the company. “The biggest issue I’m truly having here is people don’t know there’s another option besides PennDOT.”
AW Driving School and Testing Center is one of a handful of testing centers statewide authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to administer tests for non-commercial drivers.
The agency ran a test of the program from May 2016 to October 2017, and has been certifying test sites since then, said Alexis Campbell, spokesperson for PennDOT’s Bureau of Driver and Vehicle Services in Harrisburg.
The third-party examiners offer the same test as PennDOT’s driver’s license centers.
The state agency has offered a similar program for commercial driver’s licenses, Campbell said. “Because that program worked so well for so long, we instituted a similar program for non-CDL.”
Wilkerson has been operating his driving school in the Lehigh Valley for eight years. But his small company – which has six employees, including him and his wife, Sasha – did not need an office.
But the company needed a physical testing site to offer driving tests through the PennDOT program. AW now operates out of a 3,100 square-foot building behind the Executive Education Academy Charter School at 555 Union Blvd.
The main difficulty Wilkerson had was getting approval from PennDOT to open as a testing center. The facility was ready to go, but required final inspection by an examiner in order to begin operations and start serving customers.
Wilkerson said it took about a year, even as he was paying $4,000 a month in rent for the building.
“Now that we are open, we completed more than 50 tests in less than two weeks,” he said.
People are coming from as far away as Stroudsburg in Monroe County, Fleetwood in Berks County, and Scranton in Lackawanna County, he said.
The cost for a road test at AW is $60 but it is slated to go up to $80 after March 1, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson is hoping to eventually expand services to offer learner’s permits and become a photo licensing center, where people can get their licenses renewed.
Aside from the PennDOT photo license center on Hoover Avenue in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, there are few places nearby for people to get a license and take a driving test, said Wilkerson.
Other private testing centers include Four Star Driving School LLC in Milford Township, Bucks County, near Quakertown; and Kuhn Transportation in Jim Thorpe, Carbon County. The other 10 are in Pittsburgh, Fairless Hills, Chadds Ford, Exton, Newtown Square, Erie, Ephrata, Bala Cynwyd and North Wales.
But distance is not always the biggest issue facing would-be drivers in need of testing, Wilkerson believes there is a shortage of PennDOT examiners, which PennDOT disputes.
“We are hiring new examiners all the time,” Campbell said.
The third-party testing program gives customers additional options when scheduling skills tests, she added. But while there is no charge for taking a driving skills test at a PennDOT facility, third-party business partners will charge a fee.
“Sometimes there can be wait times for scheduling skills tests, but it’s not quite accurate to say there’s a “backlog,” she said. “Every week, our exam scheduling system releases new appointments. Some appointments are on a six-week schedule and some are on a 30-week schedule, so even if appointments seem to not be available, customers should check often, as new appointments are released on an ongoing basis.”
Younger people often do not want to wait to take their tests. Campbell views PennDOT’s authorization of additional testing centers as a way to meet that demand.
In addition, she said, nearly 50 percent of people fail the skills test on their first try, and they are also going back into the system to make appointments to retest, she said.
“Offering a third-party option is just an additional customer service that we provide,” Campbell said.