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A Test of Wheels

June 22, 1997|Mary McNamara

A friend of mine who moved here, well, a while ago, finally broke down and got a California driver's license. This requires, among other bothersome things, taking the written state driver's exam. She flunked. Big time. Her howl of fury and disbelief filled the streets of Glendale (where she had gone to avoid the Hollywood lines), and I had to admit I was a bit surprised. Granted, she had lived for the past 15 years in New York City, where her driving consisted, essentially, of reminding cabbies that no matter what it looks like, Greenwich Street is not a shortcut. But she had, in the course of her life, driven many cars many places with minimal mishap. I have often ridden with her, and her left-hand turns from the right-hand lane are way above par.

"I told them this was ludicrous; I showed them how my answers were just as valid," she said, waving the corrected test like a manifesto.

"You told whom?" I asked.

"The guy who graded the test."

"You argued with the DMV guy?"

See, already we had grounds for extenuating circumstances. Anyone who would think to argue with the DMV guy clearly hasn't lived in L.A. long enough to appreciate the nuances of the driver's test. I don't mean the actual driving. I mean taking the test.

For example, one question my friend missed was: When you merge on the freeway, you should be driving . . . . She answered, "at the legal speed limit," a plausible response. The correct answer, however, is "about the same speed as the freeway traffic."

"Hey," she said, "just because everyone else is going 100 miles an hour, doesn't mean I have to. And what exactly is 'about the same speed?' "

The obligatory question about the legal blood-alcohol limit she missed completely. "Like the numbers matter," she said. "Give me a martini limit and let's be reasonable." And in a response to the question about when a slow-moving vehicle on a winding two-way highway should pull over (when five or more cars are following), she insisted on choosing the answer "you don't have to pull over regardless of the number of cars."

"What is it with California drivers and peer pressure?" she said.

Quite frankly, many of the answers were news to me. I've lived out here a bunch of years and have gotten (knock wood) no tickets. And I'm less concerned with the proper definition of a blind intersection (how long is 100 feet anyway? As long as a Starbucks? A city bus?) than I am with answers I can really use, like why is Los Feliz Boulevard always backed up? At what decibel level does playing a car radio become an arrestable offense? Isn't it against the law to park diagonally in two parking spaces, especially if you are a Ferrari? And shouldn't we have a special tourist/new to L.A. rent-a-car lane?

My friend, of course, would not have to use such a lane. On her second attempt, she passed the test with flying colors. The trick? Pick the answer that is the most subtly totalitarian. Oh, and memorize the rule book.

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