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Driving discrimination in South Dakota

Katya Surendran
There are currently no driving lessons offered for adults in the Sioux Falls area.

With limited public transportation and freezing winter months, a car and a driver’s license are necessary in South Dakota; however, the latter is tough to attain as an adult due to a lack of driving lessons and an outlined method.

Teen drivers in South Dakota all go through the structured process of getting their learners permit, their restricted license and finally their driver’s license with each step laid out for them before they even get behind the wheel. Meanwhile, there is no such program for adults.

Krishna Karia went through several processes to get her driver’s license after first moving to the United States in 2018 and then to South Dakota in 2021.

Karia lived in New York City for her first three years in the country. There she used public transportation to get everywhere, but here she felt the need to learn how to drive as she could not commute to work.

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“Honestly, there is no certain process that we can follow being an adult in Sioux Falls because there are no classes available that can help adults to learn. So, for me, it was very difficult to find a route to learn driving,” said Karia. “First, I randomly asked a Lyft driver who was an immigrant and he helped me to learn how to start the process and basic instructions. And then so many of my friends helped me to learn.”

After learning the basics, Karia got her learner’s permit and then her car along with insurance; for a year she had to pay extra on her insurance as she did not have her license when she first bought the car. With her new car, she was eligible to take proper driving lessons at the LSS Multi-Cultural Center in Sioux Falls. However, these classes are no longer offered, meaning that there are no driving lessons for adults in the Sioux Falls area. The center still provides instruction videos in several different languages to help inexperienced drivers who are new to America. 

But with the help of these previously offered classes, Karia finally passed her driver’s test and received her license after two and a half months.

“At first I was clueless. I had no idea how to start because even though like your friends are there to teach you, but you don’t know even basics, they are afraid to teach you because it’s not something in their favor because you don’t know the basics and it’s not even legal,” said Karia. “So, I had to go through the basic process first like how to get into driving mode but when you don’t have a school to start with it was a nightmare.”

Payal Ghosh first moved to South Dakota in the summer of 2021. Previously, having lived in Florida for three years, Ghosh used the public and university transportation system to get around. But after moving here and failing to find a bus route that put her within walking distance of her work, she decided to learn how to drive.

“When I [first moved] the whole thing was pretty new to me because there was very little transportation, and I had to depend on other people to get to work,” said Ghosh. “So, I went through the DMV, to get my permit and my license. I looked for a driving school nearby. I couldn’t find any and I believe there is none. For high school students that’s available but for foreigners, nothing.”

Three weeks after moving to Sioux Falls, Ghosh got her learner’s permit but struggled to find someone to teach her. Furthermore, she was unable to purchase a car because the cost of insurance for someone without a driver’s license was unaffordable.

However, at the time, Ghosh moved in with a native South Dakotan who was willing to teach her how to drive and in two months, she got her license and later her car.

“She helped me totally and I really appreciate even now that she did this for me,” said Ghosh. “When I called the DMV, they didn’t have any contact for people who can really help to teach people, and I was helpless what to do at that time.”

Vedant Thakkar recently graduated from Augustana University after moving to America in August of 2020 to start his bachelor’s degree.

Within the first six months of moving to Sioux Falls, Thakkar realized that a car was necessary to commute. While Augustana has a program to help their international students get a learner’s permit, Thakkar needed additional assistance to get his license.

“As an international student I rely a lot more on cooking my own food and getting my own groceries,” said Thakkar. “I relied a lot more on my peers that were at Augustana; they gave me a ride and then Augustana introduced their own Lyft program that gives students in need six rides per month $10 off. But still it wasn’t enough. I had to rely and I had to wait a lot. I had to take time out of my schedule to plan going to the grocery store. It wasn’t a quick in and out. It was a one, two-hour event.”

Thakkar, determined to learn how to drive, started getting driving lessons from his friend at Augustana. However, the lessons stopped after they realized that insurance would not cover any damages that occurred while Thakkar was driving the car. Thakkar did not drive for another six months, then his mentor at Sanford Research helped to teach him in her own car. Starting the process in March of 2021, Thakkar finally got his license in August of 2022.

“[Learning] was manageable but I had to rely on others to get [driving] experience. Getting a learner’s permit was easy, my school supported me, but learning how to drive was a whole different ordeal,” said Thakkar. “The other problem I ran into, being an international student, was that I don’t have the financial capacity to just buy my own car and learn how to drive from it. And there’s the problem of insurance as well. I had to find a friend who was willing to put me on their insurance, and I had to pay a little every month out of pocket for that. I was able to drive that car to go to the DMV to take my driver’s test because I did not have any other car.”

Moving to a new country and starting a new life, is an arduous process in itself. However, learning how to drive should be straightforward and simple, with the sole difficulty being that of the actual task. 

While Karia, Ghosh and Thakkar all received their licenses, they struggled to find the resources necessary to do so. With no information online or at the DMV, learning how to drive becomes a difficult task.

During the time they spent without a car, all three were entirely dependent on the generosity of others to drive them back and forth everywhere while remaining isolated from friends and social groups due to their lack of transportation.

“People are really nice around here but it was difficult. You can not go out to meet anyone or to do anything if you don’t have a car,” said Ghosh.

Without a proper structure for an adult learning how to drive, as immigrants continue to move to Sioux Falls, they will struggle to immerse themselves into this new culture and become productive citizens. 

“There needs to be more awareness about international individuals coming to Sioux Falls and Sioux Falls is a growing city. This is a population that needs support. So, maybe the government or local organizations could help get [driving lessons], a crucial need,” said Thakkar. “Because if transportation was good in Sioux Falls this wouldn’t have been a problem but it’s not and you have to rely on a car to just survive. I think having more programs overall would help a lot of individuals.”

As Sioux Falls welcomes more immigrants, perhaps the South Dakota Department of Transportation should create a program for drivers over the age of 18, so that driving is no longer a barrier that new residents must overcome in our community.

This story was originally published on The Statesman on February 2, 2024.