Column: For drivers 70 and older, the road rage over DMV test questions continues
Half a year has come and gone since I first wrote about driver’s license renewal adventures for people 70 and older, but the mail keeps coming.
I hear regularly from people who are confused, frustrated and angry about the process, and some of them have repeatedly flunked tests despite spotless driving records. On Friday afternoon, even the DMV acknowledged this mess, and a spokesperson told me the agency is working on some fixes, which I’ll get to in a minute.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the DMV lifted the requirement that drivers over 70 had to go to an office to renew their license. When the requirement was reinstated on Jan. 1 of this year, that’s when the confusion began.
To summarize the complaints that fly in over my transom, readers aren’t clear on whether you can take an online test at home, or, if you go to a DMV office for your test, whether you can take it on paper rather than on a computer.
California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.
I’ve also heard from readers who flew through the process without complications and passed easily. But pass or fail, a lot of drivers say they find a number of the questions to be infuriatingly trivial and useless in determining driving ability.
John Suggs, 76, of Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains, says he got a test question about “how far your chest is supposed to be from an airbag. The answers I had to choose from were 8, 10 and 12 inches, with 10 being the correct answer. That level of specificity was laughable.”
Alysia Vinitzian, 70, a West L.A. talent coach, said she flunked twice before passing on her third try, and she recalls two “ridiculous” questions in particular. One was about how to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning, “but they offered no context” regarding the specific situation. The other was about sharing the road with NEVs, with no explanation as to what an NEV is. She later learned that’s a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, like a golf cart.
“There’s a cottage industry to be had in terms of coaching people to memorize all the numbers in the DMV handbook,” Vinitzian said. “They love to ask about the number of feet, the number of yards, the numbers for jail sentences.”
Although she got her license renewed, Vinitzian is now battling the DMV over a vision dispute. The agency insists she take another driving test every year or two; she insists her eye doctor says that’s not necessary.
Joan Moon, 77, a Ladera Heights Realtor, purchased a prep course for the test, studied hard and failed. So she studied hard again, took another test, and failed again.
“It was soul-crushing,” said Moon, who took her daughter’s advice and got two test-prep apps. She studied even harder this time, and even used flashcards.
“I’m not a dummy. I went to college and I’ve been a Realtor for 30 years and most people think I’m intelligent, but I took the third test and failed,” said Moon. “Both the test course and the apps said they would encompass all the questions that would be on the test. That turned out to be untrue. The four questions I missed were ones I had not seen on any of the learning tools.”
“For example, how many points are you allowed in a year? And what does that have to do with how good a driver I am? Or where can I legally mount my cellphone?”
If you flunk three times, as Moon did before passing on her fourth try, you have to pay another $41 fee to start a new round of test-taking.
Long Beach resident Sue Speir, 74, said she thinks that’s unfair, especially in the case of seniors on fixed incomes. Speir flunked twice on the computerized knowledge test and insists she was done in by “trick questions” that have nothing to do with driving ability. She said she has trouble with computers and requested a paper test, but that led to a whole additional rigmarole.
“I called the state DMV office twice and they said I had a right to request a paper test,” said Speir, but she got a different story at the Long Beach branch she went to. First she was told that a paper test was no longer an option, and later she was told that you had to flunk a computer test first. In the end, she took the written test and passed.
Encino resident Mitchell Group, 70, offered the same tip as several other readers. He was apprehensive about taking the test, so he did some research and found that it was wise to begin the renewal process online. When you do, you might be given the option of taking a pass-fail online knowledge test, or to instead use the DMV’s eLearning program, which is what Group did.
“It’s basically a 40-minute video in seven sections that you watch online,” said Group, an actor who told me he’s made a living at his craft but not gotten rich. “Or famous,” his wife, Diane, added in the background.
“After each section there is a short test with multiple-choice answers,” Group explained. “If you pick the wrong answer they let you know. You then are allowed to enter another answer. If it shows correct, you move on. You can’t fail the test. You just keep changing the answers until you put in every correct answer.”
That’s what he did; then he went to a DMV office for the required eye test, and he got his license. Joan Moon, by the way, the Realtor who struck out three times, finally got her license after doing the eLearning program.
So why would the DMV have such a confusing set of options, and why would the in-person tests at DMV branches be harder than the eLearning course you could take without leaving home? That’s another in a long history of confounding DMV mysteries and irritations, but apparently the agency has gotten the message. Here’s what the DMV public affairs unit sent me late Friday:
“The DMV has heard from seniors and others who have difficulty taking the knowledge test and knowing when they are eligible for the online test or the eLearning course. As a result, the DMV is currently revising the online driver’s license application. In 2024, our customers should see improvement in descriptions of services available, how to engage with the eLearning course or online test, and experience a smoother flow to the process. The DMV is also revising the webpage information about the knowledge test types. Those changes will be available in the coming weeks.”
It shouldn’t have taken this long to see the light, and the changes can’t happen soon enough. Getting old is hard enough without having to box bureaucrats.
In the meantime, if you’re up for renewal, my advice is that if it’s at all possible, take the eLearning option.
And if you still get lost, or encounter any more crazy test questions, you know where to find me.
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