The test is so tricky that anyone can fail – and they do.
■ CHRIS SMITH / ADVISORY EDITOR
I recently was notified by the California Department of Motor Vehicles that I had to appear at the DMV and take a written and vision test. As a healthy 72-year-old who had just refreshed my glasses prescription, and being reasonably intelligent, I wasn’t concerned.
When I arrived at the Hemet DMV office, I didn’t have an appointment, but I managed to get processed fairly quickly. I was asked if I were comfortable taking a computer test for the written portion, and, of course, I said yes, since I spend much of my time in front of the screen. What surprised me, however, was how difficult the written test had become. The last time I took it, it was a breeze. I think I got 100 percent. Not this time; I barely passed.
A close friend of mine just turned 71 and also was given a notice to appear for these tests. The first time she took it, she flunked. She had read through the driver’s manual and studied the nearly 100 pages of 9-point type, but failed anyway. No worries. She’ll just study some more and pass it the next time. I helped her with studying and quizzed her on some of the main points in the handbook. She took the test a second time and passed with flying colors, right? Wrong. She flunked again. Now she’s concerned about having her license suspended. She can take the test three times, but if she fails the third time, she will have to start all over by applying for a new license.
Tests analytical ability
I reviewed the sample questions used in the test. They seem to me to be designed not to test your knowledge of the rules of the road so much as to test your analytical ability, which is something older people might find difficult. I have found nothing online to indicate that the California driver’s test is intended to screen out older drivers, but the test is so tricky that it almost goes beyond being reasonable. Both I and my friend have master’s degrees. She flunked twice, and I almost failed.
We all have heard stories about older drivers who have plowed into groups of pedestrians killing and maiming innocent people. Drivers 85 years and older have the highest rate of fatal accidents per miles driven of any age group, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There are individuals out there who would like to prevent older drivers past a certain age from getting behind the wheel of a car. So perhaps making the driver’s test so difficult no one with a hint of memory loss can pass is a concession to these well-meaning citizens.
Nevertheless, there are more than 5.5 million drivers over the age of 55 in California and 2.5 million of us are 70 or older. And none of us is getting any younger. We certainly don’t want to endanger ourselves, our family members, or anyone else on the road. But if millions of us can’t drive, we better do more to beef up our public transportation systems.
The state’s solution
The state has taken a reasonable approach to dealing with this conundrum. I think most people would agree that taking vision and written tests at age 70 is a good idea. Making the tests so difficult that few of us can pass on first try hints at extremism. Yet some would go even further and add a road test to the exam.
Regardless, there are remedies for people with physical and mental impairments. In California, the DMV may impose restrictions on licenses of older drivers. The most common one is to require glasses or corrective contact lenses. Other common requirements may include:
• No freeway driving
• An additional right side mirror on a vehicle
• No night time driving
• Time-of-day restrictions – for example, no driving during rush hour traffic
• Requiring a support to ensure a proper driving position
• Geographic area restrictions, and
• Wearing a bioptic telescopic lens when driving
By the way, the DMV encourages people to “turn in” their friends and relatives if we think they represent a danger on the road. The DMV claims to have a fair and reasonable means of testing their abilities.
Something all drivers should do when we reach 55 or older is take a “mature-driver course.” Why? Not only can it reduce our chances of having an accident, but it can significantly reduce our insurance premiums. And that’s something all of us on fixed incomes will want. A list of online and physical locations that offer mature driver courses can be found on the DMV website at https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/vehindustry/ol/md_programs .