CARSON CITY — Rita Sandoval, an El Salvador native, made a pair of mistakes Friday behind the wheel with an instructor by her side as she drove the streets of Las Vegas.
She stopped on the crosswalk in front of a stop sign and traveled too slow in a 25 mph school zone when there were no children around.
“I can’t believe I went too slow. Usually, it’s the reverse,” said Sandoval, 43, who now has to take the driving test again on Feb. 28 at the Sahara Avenue office of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The good news is she passed the written test a few weeks ago, so the only things standing between her and a coveted driver authorization card are a few adjustments.
“Si Dios quiere,” she adds, or “God willing.”
And when she gets it, she will be added to the short but growing list of those who are living in the United States illegally but are now driving Nevada’s roads legally under the new law.
Nearly 3,500 Nevada residents, the DMV reports, are now legally driving on public roadways since the program began on Jan. 2.
Another 1,600 instruction permits have been issued in a little more than a month of the program’s operation, according to data provided by the DMV. The data, which run through Feb. 4, shows 3,456 cards and 1,656 permits were granted by the agency.
The number of written tests taken by applicants for the period totaled 13,370, with another 3,588 skills tests administered under the new program.
Sandoval said she came to Las Vegas seven years ago with a visa. She stayed after it expired “for a better life.”
She said that the written test wasn’t too difficult and that the driving laws aren’t much different from her hometown of San Salvador.
“The biggest difference is over here there’s much more courtesy, and people respect the laws,” she said.
“Over there, it’s kind of a free-for-all, but the fines aren’t as costly as they are here.”
The driver authorization card program was established this year after the Nevada Legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval backed the idea as a way to make state roads safer. It is modeled after a similar program in Utah.
Nevada residents who qualify for the card, which is honored by Nevada’s law enforcement agencies, must demonstrate knowledge of the rules of the road. Most applicants must take the written test, and many others must take the skills test, too.
While not part of the card application process, anyone driving a vehicle on Nevada roads must have auto insurance too.
Las Vegas police and the Nevada Highway Patrol have not reported any concerns or issues with the new cards.
But wait times at DMV offices continue to be an issue because people seeking the card must apply in person.
DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said wait times at the several offices around Nevada have come down a bit over the past few weeks since the card debuted but remain higher than before the card was offered.
Demand for the skills driving test have caused delays, with appointments that were being scheduled one to two days out before the new program now being set for 10 to 12 days later, he said.
Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, the author of the bill establishing the card, said Nevadans should realize that the program will benefit everyone.
“I am generally pleased that there is so much interest,” he said. “I think more people will apply when they hear about the success that other folks have had with the program.”
In legislative hearings on Senate Bill 303 in 2013, the estimate was that as many as 60,000 people in Nevada could be eligible for the card.
There was some fear initially that the process would be used to arrest or deport people who are not citizens, Denis said. So interest is likely to pick up now that those fears have proved to be unfounded, he said.
SB303 prohibits the use of the information by the federal government.
Denis said he has received some calls from constituents complaining about the increased wait times at DMV offices because of the new program.
It is a bit early to assess the effects of the program on auto sales, Denis said. But a report on the Utah program showed that not only were people getting the cards buying more cars, they were buying better vehicles, he said.
Wayne Frediani, executive director of the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association, said he does not expect the program to have much of an effect on auto sales in Nevada.
The number of driver authorization cards being issued is small compared with regular driver’s license requests. During the same Jan. 2 to Feb. 4 period, there were 70,007 regular licenses and 5,222 permits granted.
Passing the written test remains a challenge for card applicants. The DMV reports that from Jan. 15 through Feb. 4, the pass rate was 36 percent. That compares with a pass rate of 43 percent for those seeking a regular driver’s license.
Marisol Montoya, state director of Mi Familia Vota, a national nonpartisan organization working to improve civic participation by the Latino community, said the pass rate on the written test has been a challenge with the new program.
“So we are taking the responsibility to prepare the community better,” she said. “People did not realize that when they applied for the card, that they would take the test right away.”
The organization, which has offices in Las Vegas and Reno, holds a training session once a month for potential applicants to review the driver’s handbook, Montoya said.
Driver authorization cards, which are valid for one year, are $22.25 plus a $25 testing fee. If an applicant fails the written or skills tests, subsequent tests are $10.
Montoya, a Las Vegas native, said knowing that other drivers know the rules and are insured is a plus for all residents.
The people she has talked to about the program are happy to have it available.
“It is definitely a relief to people,” Montoya said. “People do want to comply with the law and drive legally. It is creating a safer community for everyone.”
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.