Column: Older drivers reveal strategies for passing that 'ridiculous' California DMV renewal test

WESTMINSTER, CA - AUGUST 13: Clients observe social distancing while giving written driving test at DMV on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 in Westminster, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Drivers are still finding "obscure and ridiculous" questions when they have to take the written driving test at the DMV. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

I wouldn’t call it an atmospheric river, because those come and go. DMV mail falls in a never-ending rain, without regard to seasons.

Not that it’s all bad news from readers who, like good soldiers, dutifully report every development from the front lines of the battle to renew their driver’s licenses.

Rosa Maria Juarez, 94, shared a success story. The Montebello resident, who assured me she’s a safe and conscientious driver, passed easily and offered to coach me when I take the test later this year.

Here’s a pro tip from Juarez:

“They told me to go on a computer, but the computers are dirty. People are touching those computers. You can see the smudges, the dark spots. Like they never clean them.”

Juarez asked for a paper test instead, sat down, and minutes later, BOOM! License renewed.

Culver City resident Parrish Hirasaki, 78, started to deliberate after hearing from so many friends who flunked the test. She studied the driving handbook with a highlighter, and then made a study guide — a grid with nine columns of facts about speeds (5 mph on ice), fines ($1,000 for speeding through a work zone) and distances (15 feet or more from a fire hydrant).

“Now I have bragging rights with my friends,” Hirasaki said after acing the test on her first try. “And I have bragged a lot.”

The road to renewal was a bit bumpier for June Meyers, who lives in Westwood. She followed my recommendation to take the DMV’s fail-safe eLearning course on her home computer. If you have a good driving record and qualify, eLearning is like a 45-minute driver ed course, with quizzes after each of seven sections. If you give the wrong answer, no worries. You can try again until you get it right.

But for Meyers, it was glitch after glitch, just as it was for lots of other readers.

Read more: Column: For drivers 70 and older, the road rage over DMV test questions continues

“It crashed three times,” Meyers, 90, said in a sassy letter to the DMV. She later took an in-person test after studying for a week, and like so many others, Meyers found a lot of the questions to be “as obscure and ridiculous as possible.” She passed anyway, but just barely.

I told Meyers I got a kick out of the last line of her DMV letter, in which she said, “I don’t have to return for four years. With any luck I’ll be dead.”

As for the “obscure and ridiculous” questions, some readers complained that although the DMV had promised me it made a list of about two dozen questions to throw out — including the aggressively absurd “what is another name for the hand-to-hand steering method?” — some of them were still on the test.

So what gives, DMV?

“Those questions were removed in the past few days,” DMV Deputy Director Anita Gore assured me late last week.

Regarding glitches in the eLearning system, Gore said Golden State readers had something to do with the tech crashes:

“Thanks to the eLearning publicity provided in part by your column, the system was temporarily overloaded, causing some users to get error messages,” she said. “Updates have been made to accommodate more volume.”

And efforts are continuing, Gore said, to direct more drivers (of all ages) to the eLearning course, which focuses on safe driving rather than on memorizing the kind of minutiae found on the written tests.

Read more: Column: Who’s more dangerous behind the wheel — drivers 70 and older, or 30 and younger?

“Knowledge is more valuable than the ability to take a written test,” said Gore.

That jibes with something DMV director Steve Gordon told me in our last conversation.

“I don’t know if there’s any strong correlation between being able to pass a written test and being a safe driver,” he said.

I’m clearing my throat here. OK, ready?

Those tests have been responsible for decades of stress, family arguments, and untold cheating attempts and sleepless nights for teens, their parents and everyone else who’s ever driven.

And they might have been a waste of time?

Actually, Gordon didn't go that far, and there’s obvious value to testing people on the rules of the road (provided the questions are relevant). But as several readers have suggested, the truest test of whether you have any business driving is a behind-the-wheel test, because it’s possible to ace a written test and still be a menace in the driver’s seat.

But how could you get anyone to agree on an age — 70? 75? 80? — for mandatory driving tests?

And what politician would push the needed legislation, given the fact that older voters like to vote?

As I’ve said before, good drivers come in all ages and so do bad drivers. But many of us have seen our parents refuse to surrender the keys even when it’s obvious their vision, judgment and reaction time have slipped. (Currently in California, about 90,000 behind-the-wheel tests are administered every month to first-time drivers and those who might be having problems, including older drivers).

Read more: Letters to the Editor: It should be hard to renew a driver’s license. Sorry, seniors

Frank Cantor, who operates driving schools that offer refresher courses to older drivers in California and several other states, said judgment and neck mobility are among the challenges he sees. He brought up one student in particular.

“I gave my mom a refresher and she ended up hitting a pedestrian and didn’t even know it,” Cantor said from Florida, where he lives. “She was 75 and she was always a horrible driver. I taught her that if you can’t look over your shoulder, you have the side-view mirrors, and if you lean forward, you’ll catch the blind spot.”

That's another pro tip. Don't forget it.

When I asked Hirasaki, who devised the study guide, what she thought about mandatory behind-the wheel testing, her first words were: “Oh, please, no.” But Meyers, who fired off that dart of a letter to the DMV, said she would absolutely support the idea.

And Juarez stands ready to grab her keys and climb behind the wheel right now for a driving test.

“I would be glad to take it,” she said. “I’m not afraid.”

So how exactly did Juarez pass the written knowledge test so easily?

She said her daughter printed out four practice exams from the DMV website. Juarez took every one of them, then proceeded to the DMV office and focused on the task in front of her, just as she does when she’s behind the wheel.

“As I got older, I started learning that I need to focus on every job I’m doing. Focus on the job. Don’t get distracted,” Suarez said, especially after her late husband got Alzheimer’s and she drove the two of them everywhere, including Las Vegas and Palm Springs.

I thanked her for her help and said I hoped to meet her before renewing my license in October.

She said she was available any time, including the present.

“Where do you hang out?” Juarez asked.

Right here at my computer, trying to catch up on all the DMV emails.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.