Vancouver Police sergeant: periodically retest Washington drivers

Idea getting lukewarm response from traffic representatives

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith



Many young drivers in

Washington fail the written exam the first time.

Age 15 to 17: 51%

Age 18 to 19: 40%

Source: Department of Licensing

Many young drivers in

Washington fail the written exam the first time.

Age 15 to 17: 51%

Age 18 to 19: 40%

Source: Department of Licensing

Several weeks ago, Traffic Sgt. Pat Johns pulled over a woman who was following a car too closely on Highway 500. The guy she was tailing tapped his brakes, signaling her to back off. When she didn’t, Johns put on his patrol car’s flashing lights and pulled her over.

Did you know that guy? he asked her.


Do you know what the safe distance is for following someone?


Do you remember how many seconds you’re supposed to give between cars?


How about car lengths? Does that sound familiar?


Do you remember what the driver’s handbook said?


Johns has been the traffic sergeant at the Vancouver Police Department for three years. Every day, he pulls people over who honestly have no clue what they were doing wrong on the road.

“We can chalk it up to people lying to me, but not everyone is lying,” he said. “You look them in the eye and you can tell they’re honest. They really don’t know.”

Johns said Washington should require every driver to retake the written portion of the driving test every five years to keep drivers safe and competent and to eliminate traffic fatalities. He figures, if drivers have to spend $45 to renew their license anyway, why not make sure they’re up to snuff on traffic safety?

The idea is getting a lukewarm response from traffic representatives. They aren’t sure about how retesting would be funded and if it would actually reduce fatality rates.

Johns has asked insurance agents if they would offer lower rates to Washington drivers required to retest or give a discount if collision rates were lower after five years as a result of retesting. They were hesitant to give a definitive response.

Brad Hilliard, spokesman at State Farm, said that while the company offers safe driver discounts, it’s difficult to predict what the company could offer a Washington driver who has retaken the test.

“We would want to test the actual benefits of being tested every five years,” Hilliard said.

Clark County’s Target Zero representative, Marion Swendsen, said she doesn’t know if required retesting would change driver behavior, but she would like to see the idea fleshed out. Maybe retesting should be required based on the number of crashes a driver has been in or the number of tickets they’ve earned, she said.

Brad Benfield, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Licensing, said requiring drivers to retake the test would put a bigger burden on DOL offices and add significantly to wait times. Licensing tests can’t be taken online, so drivers would have to come into an office. However, Benfield said the DOL is in the process of shifting driver’s testing to private driver training schools, easing the traffic at DOL offices.

Required retesting wouldn’t necessarily be the best use of resources or yield better results than other outreach options, said Jonna VanDyk, program manager at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

However, VanDyk said increasing awareness of traffic laws would be a good idea, because drivers are tested on safety, not the motor vehicle laws, when they first get their license.

“There are a lot of areas where we could all probably use a refresher course,” VanDyk said.

Sgt. Johns is getting support from Steve Capellas, who teaches driver training at 911 Driving School on Highway 99. Before teaching, Capellas spent 30 years as a police officer with both the sheriff’s office and Vancouver Police Department.

“I like the idea of being able to take that test again,” he said.

Capellas has taken the test four times in his life; once to get his driver’s training certification and three other times after moving out-of-state. However, once a driver takes that first test, he said, nothing is done to improve or refresh their skills.

While any law enforcement officer, doctor or family member can order a driver to retake the driving test, it’s rare, Capellas said. Typically, it’s someone with a medical condition, vision problems or unsafe driving behavior. Since 2011, the Washington State DOL has processed 3,972 “Driver Evaluation Request” forms, which require knowing the driver’s name, license number, address and date of birth.

As of Nov. 3., there were 5,266,828 licensed drivers in Washington, including 337,598 in Clark County.

Although advances in car engineering have made crashes more survivable, Capellas said they haven’t made drivers any better at driving. Honda, for instance, introduced a car that applies the brakes when you take a turn or approach a car too quickly. Capellas said these technologies can encourage poor driving habits.

Still, the idea to retest drivers comes with many unknowns and questions, Capellas said.

“I know, theoretically, it’s going to be a nightmare,” he said.

Johns is still trying to feel out the idea himself, but he’s adamant about seeing it through.

“What happens when you’re 25 or 30? Where’s your continuing education?” Johns said. “We’re missing the mark somehow.”

He plans to attend traffic safety meetings with Clark County’s Target Zero representative Swendsen and talk with local legislators about his retesting idea.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513;;

Test your knowledge of the rules of the road

At 98 chapters long (and growing), Washington’s vehicle code is full of rules and regulations everyone is supposed to know.

“How does someone keep track of it and keep safe?” said Traffic Sgt. Pat Johns with the Vancouver Police Department. “It’s your responsibility to pay attention to the laws that are being written.”

It’s also your responsibility to keep your car up to snuff. Some rules are obvious — no flashing lights on any vehicle except for emergency vehicles — while others are a little more elusive.

Think you’re driver safety savvy? Test your knowledge of the rules of the road with our quiz that covers some of the more obscure, yet commonly violated traffic laws.

1 Do bicycle riders have to wear a helmet in Vancouver?

? Yes

? No

2 Do bike riders have to wear a helmet in Clark County?

? Yes

? No

3 When an emergency vehicle is parked on the side of the highway with its lights flashing, what do you do?

? Move over if it’s safe and there’s room to do so

? Slow down

? All of the above

4 A Washington State Patrol car is stopped in the shoulder of Highway 500 and you’re approaching the vehicle from behind in the right lane. How much space do you need to leave the vehicle?

? 400 feet

? 200 feet

? So long as you slow down, you don’t have to leave any space

5 If I’m a pedestrian, can I walk in the roadway if there’s no traffic?

? Yes

? No

? Depends

6 Can a 13-year-old ride in the front seat?

? Yes

? No

7 Do Washington drivers need a front license plate?

? No, just a rear license plate

? Yes, a license plate in the front of the car, either in the dashboard or mounted on the front, is required

? Yes, and it must be mounted on the front

8 Can you have a tinted license plate cover?

? Yes

? No

9 How much light transmission must tinted windows have?

? 24 percent

? 15 percent

? 35 percent

? 40 percent

10 When you move to Washington, how many days do you have to register and title your vehicle?

? 30 days

? 60 days

? 45 days

11 How long can you use a spare tire?

? Until you get to the tire store

? Two days

? Seven days

Quiz Answers

1: Yes. All riders, no matter what age they are, have to wear a helmet while riding a non-motorized vehicle on any roadway in the city of Vancouver. That includes paths and trails such as the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail that runs up to Vancouver Lake. “A lot of kids, especially high school students, aren’t wearing helmets,” Johns said. Parents are responsible for ensuring children younger than 18 wear a helmet with the chin-strap securely fastened, but a citation may be issued to either the child or parent if the child is between 12 and 16 years of age.

2: No. On the north side of Fourth Plain, just inside Clark County, you don’t have to wear a helmet.

3: All of the above. Under Washington’s Move Over law, vehicles need to slow down and move over if it’s safe to do so (you still have to yield to oncoming traffic). Failure to slow down and move over can result in a $190 fine, and then if you’re speeding, the speeding fine is doubled. Endanger an emergency worker and you could be charged with a gross misdemeanor, possible jail time and a 60-day license suspension.

If you’re curious, the fine for failing to pull over when an approaching emergency vehicle has lights and sirens running is $1,062.

4: 200 feet. You’re supposed to leave a 200-foot “emergency zone” between you and an emergency vehicle. In this scenario, you would have to move to the left lane 200 feet before you pass the patrol car. The Move Over law was originally passed in 2007, but after collisions involving emergency vehicles and workers increased instead of decreased, the law was amended in 2010 to include an emergency zone.

5: Depends. The roadway is defined as curb to curb if there is no white line and no bike lane. However, if there is a sidewalk, pedestrians have to use it. Note: If you’re a driver, you also have to stay inside the white lines and out of the bike lane.

6: Yes, but any children younger than 13 must be in a seat behind the driver when it’s practical to do so. If your car just has a driver and passenger seat, obviously, it’s all right if the kid is in the front. Johns often sees kids riding in the front seat when he patrols school zones.

7: Yes, and it must be mounted on the front. All Washington cars need a front license plate mounted on the front of the car. When the license is displayed in the dashboard, that’s technically the middle of the car, not the front. “This is a common one,” Johns said. “People will want to argue with me.” Sometimes plates come stuck together and the front license just needs to be mounted back onto the front bumper.

8: No. License plate covers cannot be tinted, because people need to be able to read your license plate clearly. If tinted covers were legal, criminals could drive away without people being able to read the license plate number, which can be a critical piece of information for investigations.

9: 24 percent. Windows behind the driver’s and passenger’s seat can have 24 percent tint and a total reflectance of 35 percent or less, but no mirrored finish and no liquid applications. You can have a darker tint and tinted front windows only if you have a medical condition; proof of the condition has to be kept in the car. If the windows are installed after you buy the vehicle, it must have the window installation company’s sticker on the driver’s side window to identify legal tinting.

10: 30 days. Drivers have 30 days to switch over their car information. Johns often sees Oregon license plates in local school zones and finds out that people have procrastinated on getting the license and title registered in the state they now live in. If an officer sees your out-of-state plate more than three times, they will pull you over to figure out if you’re a resident or not.

11: Until you get to the tire store. Driving with a spare tire for an extended period of time is illegal in Washington. Johns has seen drivers leave spare tires on for more than two weeks, but the law says you can drive with your spare tire on just to the nearest tire store, not all over town. Spare tires don’t handle the road as well and can’t hit high speeds.