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Tales From The Freeway

Road Rules : The Whats, Whys and Wherefores of Getting a Driver's License


There are more than 20,066,000 licensed drivers careening around the concrete and asphalt of California, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Consider this the next time some yahoo in lane No. 1 rocket-launches his turbo-engine Saab across four lanes of traffic to catch his off-ramp and cuts you off in the process. Then wonder how he got his driver's license. Here's a look at how we all get our driver's licenses.

What are the essentials?

A copy of your birth certificate, a Social Security card or some other proof of your Social Security number, meeting the age and physical requirements, passing written and road tests, and $12.

How many questions can you get wrong on the written test and still pass?

There are several levels of multiple-choice written tests that differ mainly depending on a person's age, said Susan Drake, manager of the DMV's driver license procedures and publications section, which produces the test handbooks. For minors (18 years and younger) taking the test for the first time, there are 46 questions, and a maximum of seven errors are allowed. For adults applying for a driver's license for the first time, the test has 36 questions and they can get as many as five wrong. A third test, with 18 questions and an allowance of two errors, is administered to people who did not qualify for license renewal by mail.

When can you try the test again if you fail?

Minors have to wait at least one week before taking the written test a second time, Drake said, adding that this lag time is given to encourage further study of the handbook. Adults, however, can take the written test as many times as they feel like in one day.

What does it cost?

For $12, you get three chances to pass the written test. If you still don't succeed, you have to pay another $12 for three more chances. Once you pass the test, the $12 fee also gets you a driver's license.

What is the question people most often get wrong?

People frequently lose their heads over the question of what to do when in a center lane with outer solid lines and inner dash lines on a two-way street. In the multiple-choice test, people most often choose the false answer that states the lane can be used for a left or right turn, Drake said. The lane can be used only for a left turn or to start a permitted U-turn.

How often do you have to take a written test?

Once you have your license and maintain a good driving record (a maximum of one accident and one traffic ticket in a two-year period), you can renew your license by mail up to three times, or 12 years, without taking a test. Provided the DMV has your correct address, it will mail a form about two months prior to your license expiration date (always your birthday) and you mail back the completed form with $12. The DMV does randomly send out a micro-list of test questions with renewals, but the questionnaire is used only to raise drivers' awareness of new rules. The DMV mails back an extension card within three to five weeks, and this card should be kept with your picture license.

What if you've changed addresses or transformed from a 300-pound brunette to a 110-pound blonde since you last had your picture license renewed?

There are millions of people driving around with outdated information on their driver's licenses. From your weight to the picture of you with bands on your teeth, the information on your license can be as prehistoric as a dozen years. As long as the name on your license coincides with your legal name, everything else can fall by the wayside. However, if you want your driver's license to reflect your new P.O. Box number in Rancho Santa Fe or your face lift, you can go to any DMV office, take a vision test (not a written), pay $12, get a new picture taken, and receive a new license in the mail within three to five weeks.

New licenses have a coded magnetic strip across the back, which holds the same information that can be found on the front of the license. The California Highway Patrol plans to implement a scanning method to see if a driver has any outstanding warrants. Drake said everyone should have a magnetized card by 1998.

When do people have to take an actual driving test?

A person who has never had a driver's license must take a driving test as well as a written test. California honors licenses from other states and other countries, but does not honor the international driver's license, so people with those licenses are given driving tests as well.

Driving tests are also given to people with physical or mental conditions that could affect their ability to drive safely, conditions that could occur anytime in a person's driving history. People who have had a lapse of consciousness, epilepsy or diabetes, for example, have to take road tests, sometimes extensive drives, depending on the examiner's impression of the person's ability to drive safely.

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