You've borrowed your aunt's car. You've been waiting 45 minutes in 100-degree heat to take your driving test, worrying about whether you can parallel park.
By the time the Department of Motor Vehicles examiner steps into your car, your palms make slime tracks on the steering wheel and your shirt is glued to your back.
Start the engine. Pull out of the parking lot. Turn left. Turn right. Blinkers on, speed is under the limit. You're doing fine--until the examiner orders the unexpected: "Get on the freeway."
For the first time in more than 60 years, the Department of Motor Vehicles has devised a new road test for driver's license applicants, which includes many a motorist's nightmare: freeway driving. (The written portion of the driver's test has been updated about every five years.)
"I was expecting her to make me do a three-point turn on a turnabout, or parallel park," sighed Erica Garrison, an 18-year-old Montebello student who recently failed her first try at the new driving test. "This was difficult. "
The new test--which is called an exam, not a test--is completely different from the old one. It is the difference between having toast and coffee for breakfast or a mega-meal of eggs, bacon, muffins, juice and hash browns.
The test time, for instance, has more than doubled to a whopping 27 minutes. It starts before you turn the key in the ignition. Now you've got to answer a lengthy pre-drive pop quiz on equipment. Fail more than three of the important items on the checklist and you are disqualified.
Today, the new test takes you up hills and down, through business and residential areas, on quiet streets and on the freeway. Your examiner watches how you change lanes, what type of stop you make when you pull up to an intersection, and whether you adequately scan for traffic and pedestrians.
In an attempt to standardize the exam, no more pretest chatter. This is strictly business. Please, no rosaries or air fresheners dangling from the rearview mirror.
Drivers have gotten sloppy over the years, DMV officials say. Last year, 4,163 people were killed and 315,184 were injured in traffic accidents across the state. Today, because of school budget cuts, many driver education programs have been eliminated and most youngsters learn to drive elbow-to-elbow with a family member, DMV officials say.
"We don't have as many competent drivers as we had in the past," said DMV spokesman Bill Madison. "You've got people running red lights, encroaching into crosswalks. There's a lack of knowledge. Plus the driving conditions have changed--we have more traffic, more congestion."
But the road exam portion of the license test, first implemented in 1933, has not kept pace with life in the fast lanes. Until now.
Starting last month, DMV officials quietly rolled out a new driving test in 30 offices in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. After a year, officials will evaluate the test, possibly making minor changes, before launching it statewide, Madison said.
The new exam emphasizes what DMV officials believe are more realistic day-to-day driving conditions, including congestion, freeway traffic, curves and merging into traffic. It's meant to test an applicant's reactions.
"We are hoping to raise the level of competency of drivers in today's conditions," said Edwin Imura, assistant manager in the DMV's driver's license policy unit.
Michelle Dancy, 20, commutes 90 minutes by bus from her Altadena home to Cal State Fullerton. If she passed her road test, she would drive to classes.
Dancy's grandmother drove her to the DMV office. Dancy's hands were sweating by the time she got behind the wheel with DMV examiner Dina Luna at her side. As she drove through the parking lot, a car abruptly pulled into her path--a maneuver that Luna saw before Dancy did. "Careful, careful," urged Luna, reaching toward the steering wheel.
The test did not go well. Dancy missed the passing score by two points.
Luna doesn't like to fail applicants. But if you screw up, you will fail. Under the new test, there is less room for an examiner's personal bias.
Luna enjoys her job but there are facets that drive her crazy, such as the strap marks she gets after buckling up in a dirty car.
Then there are the times when applicants get nervous and their feet freeze on the gas pedal. Or they forget to look before they turn at an intersection.
"We live for the hand brake," Luna said.