By Michael Davis
When 16-year-old Gabrielle Gay called the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicle Safety to make an appointment to take a road-test, she knew it might be a while.
Waiting in line to begin her test at the Forest Park DMVS post on Ga. Highway 85 Friday, she said she knew when she called that an appointment might not be available for many weeks.
"It was probably back at the beginning of September when I called," she said. "I knew it would probably be a while because they are usually backed up."
Waiting nearly eight weeks to take the test, however, gave her more time to hone her skills, she said.
"I wanted something earlier but I felt it would be better this way so I would have more time to practice."
Since January, first-time drivers have been required to take a road-test in addition to the written test and obstacle course before getting their license. Now, the DMVS says it is experiencing more and more drivers going farther outside of the metro Atlanta to take the road-tests.
Gay said she came to the Forest Park post from Decatur.
"We're seeing the backlog typically in metro Atlanta, said Susan Sports, a spokeswoman for the DMVS. She said it is not unusual for people to travel long distances to take the mandatory tests.
"People are driving all the way from metro Atlanta to Macon," she said.
Because of state budget cuts, Sports said the DMVS is understaffed, which leads to longer waits for appointments.
During the last legislative session, over 7 percent of the DMVS' budget was slashed resulting in 41 full-time positions being eliminated, she said.
"Primarily, the largest area affected are license examiners," said Sports.
Following the budget cuts, Sports said the DMVS imposed a hiring freeze, leaving them unable to build their numbers back up.
"They (examiners and enforcement officers) have the biggest turnover rates and we haven't been able to rehire," she said.
Sports said the department has 88 fewer examiners statewide than they had last year. "As people have left, we just haven't been able to replace them," she said.
One examiner can give up to 12 tests per day, but having fewer examiners reduces the number of tests that one post can administer. The Forest Park post gives 24 tests per day, said Sports and the Griffin post gives 12.
"We are finding that when they can't schedule an appointment in metro Atlanta, they are branching out," she said.
No figures are available on the number of tests given to drivers out of their local areas, but Sports said that often people will drive long distances because they have the most convenient appointment times.
"It was especially bad over the summer," said Sports. As students went back to school, they needed a license to be able to secure parking permits and this left the department stretched, she said.
But 24-year-old Tiffany Wilson of Stockbridge did not have to wait as long as some others.
Booking her appointment three weeks ago, she said she only spent a few minutes on the phone and when she came to take the test Friday, she walked right up to the counter without having to wait.
"It was easy," Wilson said. "It actually takes longer to get through to the phone-company," she said.
For fiscal year 2003, the DMVS reported having administered 199,000 road-test to Georgia's first-time drivers.
To ensure that first-time drivers get licenses as soon as they are eligible, the DMVS recommends booking the road-test appointment in advance.
Learner's permit holders under 18 must have the permit for one year and one day before being eligible for a class D provisional license.
Learner's permit holders over 18, however, must also have the permit for a year and a day before being eligible for a class C license. The DMVS says drivers can set up an appointment to take the road-test up to 45 day in advance.