PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — On a 19-degree winter day in mid-January, several workers at the Providence bureau of the Division of Motor Vehicles braved the frigid temps in heavy winter jackets to test new drivers on their skills.

DMV Administrator Bud Craddock pointed out this is the safer option for these workers, rather than sitting in the vehicles of hundreds of new drivers and being at risk of contracting COVID-19 in such close quarters.

“In March of 2020, we actually had to close down the road test sites for the safety of people that do the testing as well as our customers that were coming through,” Craddock said.

After being closed for two months, the DMV reopened in June 2020 with a new, controlled, closed-coursed system that they discovered was being used in South Carolina.

It was first used in multiple branches, including Cranston and Providence, but due to staffing and streamlining concerns. Craddock said it’s now just offered at the Providence branch.

“We are basically replicating the same success rate as they were seeing when they were doing the on-the-road courses as well,” Craddock explained.

“What they’re tested here is the fine motor skills that will really enhance their ability to be a safe driver, testing spatial distances to make sure they’re able to parallel park, to do turns in tight circumstances so they don’t have a crash or collision,” he continued.

Craddock joked that the examiners stood behind a barrier for their own safety, explaining that there have been plenty of prospective drivers crashing into the barriers, but no injuries to date.

Data shows over the past five years, the number of drivers, in general, applying for a driving test has dropped, but Craddock said there’s no dip in the number of young drivers signing up for the test.

He said things have “course-corrected” to the levels they were at prior to the pandemic.

Drivers have to show they can back up into a spot, parallel park, complete a three-point turn and drive in reverse while the examiner watches from outside the vehicle.

A companion can also be in the vehicle with them, but can’t give advice during the test. If the driver passes, they’ll wait in their car for their turn to go inside the DMV and get their license.

Craddock said there’s a 90-day backup right now to get a license, however, 16-year-old drivers have to wait at least six months from the date of their permit to even apply for one.

He said if they sign up for a road test date on the day they get their permit, they will be able to find a time slot without a problem.

New drivers do still have to have experience in “real world” road conditions. A parent or guardian must verify that any driver under the age of 18 has spent at least 50 hours behind the wheel.

In Rhode Island, it’s encouraged, due to insurance incentives, to take road lessons with a driving school.

12 News tagged along for Brett White’s first road hour with AAA Northeast. Inside the center was empty, rather than filled with students taking their state-mandated 33 hours of classroom lessons.

Due to the pandemic, it’s now all virtual. In a recent survey, AAA Northeast said 72% of students and parents prefer online training to in-person training, and 71% believed it was just as effective as in-person education.

“It was kind of hard to pay attention,” the Barrington teen said.

Longtime AAA Driving Instructor David Hanson said there are not many openings for driving lessons since they all have to be one-on-one now.

“We’re getting through it,” he said. “Everybody’s been very receptive to the new policies, you really feel like you’re making a difference. I feel like it’s more satisfying now. Trying to be as safe and sanitary as you can.”

The student’s temperature is taken before getting into the vehicle, everything is wiped down before and after each lesson, and the window is cracked for circulation.

After the road lesson, students can watch a video to see what the road test looks like, and some driving schools even bring the students by the closed course for them to see it in person.

Craddock noted students aren’t allowed to drive the course before the test.