My hands grip the steering wheel tighter as the driving examiner, clipboard in hand, approaches my car. It's my 23rd birthday today, but it feels like my 16th. My parents look on from a few feet away, arms crossed, half worried, half praying.
It's my fourth stab at getting my full G licence, and my palms are sweaty. The first time I backed into a spot that wasn't there. The second, I went 40 in a 50 zone. And the third, I grazed the curb during the dreaded parallel park.
My mom comes running up to the car before we're off to lay a little guilt on the examiner. "I hope he passes you on your birthday!" she says coyly.
I took my first test nearly five years ago, but since then times have changed.
In 2003, the province's Ministry of Transportation outsourced its driver testing services to UK-based Serco, which is responsible for administering vision, knowledge and road exams for Class G-1, G-2, commercial and motorcycle licences, booking road test appointments at 55 centres across the province.
The 10-year contract for which the province was paid $114 million was supposed to improve customer service. So it's a little unnerving to read on the company's Web site that "the contract is expected to generate $600 million in revenue." At $75 a pop for a road test, you've got to wonder whether Serco has developed an in-built preference for repeat testing.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) demanded in May that Transportation Minister Harinder Takhar review the outsourcing of public services to a private company. "Serco's not making the roads safer," says John O'Brien of OPSEU's executive board. "They're making a profit on selling driver's licences."
Although the auditor general's office hasn't issued a report on Serco's performance, its 2001 audit of the Road User Safety Program indicated that outsourcing was unnecessary, provided the ministry hired 280 additional staff at a cost of $10.3 million to reduce the lengthy waits for road tests.
"We question the prudence of making important decisions, such as selecting a service delivery option, without sufficient information and without a complete business case," says provincial auditor Erik Peters.
But the MTO went ahead with privatization plans anyway and stands by its decision. "We have every indication that Serco is meeting performance standards," says Danna O'Brien, Takhar's spokesperson. "Ontario's roads are the safest in Canada."
MTO's media relations spokesperson, Bob Nichols, adds that the province is monitoring Serco's performance carefully to ensure it is following ministry guidelines. "Serco must operate the business under our policies and procedures, and there are 92 performance standards within that contract," he says.
Yet neither the ministry nor Serco is willing to make driver test failure rates public, except to say that they're slightly higher under Serco than the average 38 per cent failure rate under the old regime.
In September, Serco increased its new licence fees by $25. The total cost of getting a graduated licence, from the time you walk in and take your written beginner's test for a G-1 licence to the time you are a fully licensed driver, jumped from $175 to $200 - if you pass your tests the first time, which many don't. Prior to the introduction of graduated licensing, it cost a grand total of $41 to get a licence.
"The Liberals knew they were going to take over a government with a $5.6 billion deficit, so they've been carrying on with those Tory sell-offs," says NDP MPP Marilyn Churley.
The company bristles at charges that it's needlessly failing drivers. "We get that often, that we're failing people on purpose," says Martin Hilliard, Serco's manager of marketing. "But it's more a matter of making sure the roads are kept safe."
As for me, I'm ecstatic when the examiner passes me, and my parents and I proceed to another location to pick up my new licence. There I discover that the payout continues. "That'll be another $75," the clerk informs us. After Young Drivers course, road test and renewal fees, I may be out $725, but I'm a legit motorist at long last.