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What Examiners Endure : The Drivers License Tests: Tales of Humor, Terror

Times Staff Writer

Drivers license examiner Kimmieko Williams of the Costa Mesa office remembers the time she instructed a man to put the car in reverse. He did, flooring it and wiping out a mailbox.

Examiner Lee Parker of the Los Angeles metro office remembers a young woman who was so nervous making a left turn that she couldn’t straighten the car out. By the time Parker got the car stopped, it was about four inches short of hitting a parked car. “Her foot was frozen on the accelerator, and I had to actually take my hand and move her foot off the accelerator,” he said.

Completed the Drive

Examiner William Thompson of the Los Angeles metro office remembers a man who had completed the drive and returned to the parking lot when his wife and two children suddenly popped up from beneath a blanket in the back of the station wagon.

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“Did he pass?” the wife wanted to know.

Welcome to the drama and the comedy, the hits and the near-misses of a profession unlike any other: the world of the Department of Motor Vehicles’ drivers license examiner.

Last year, more than 1 million Californians took their drivers license tests and nearly 500 license examiners--111 in Los Angeles County and 28 in Orange County--went along for the ride.

Pass or Fail

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Applicants, it seems, either love them or hate them. It depends, of course, on whether they pass or fail the 10- to 15-minute tour de endurance in which drivers strut their automotive know-how of such rudimentary driving skills and rules of the road as changing lanes and yielding the right of way. Fortunately for many, the dreaded parallel parking maneuver was deleted from the test a decade ago.

Like graduating from high school, getting married or undergoing your first tax audit, taking the drivers license test represents one of the major benchmarks on the road of life.

At times it’s a bumpy road, resembling what one examiner likened to an old Keystone Kops movie.

Applicants have been known to drive up over the curb, demolish picket fences and mow down shrubbery. British drivers occasionally become so unglued during the drive test that they revert back to their old ways: driving down the “wrong” side of the street.

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Those who pass the test--they must score at least 70 out of 100 points--often react as though they’d won the lottery, leaning over and hugging and kissing the examiner.

Those who fail, especially teen-age girls, are frequently reduced to tears. Others boil over in anger.

Parker recalled one woman who, having failed the drive test, threw a temper tantrum on the ground outside the building, crying and yelling and kicking so much that even her husband couldn’t stop her.

After Williams told one male applicant that he had failed, the man slammed his car door and charged after her. She retreated into the office, refusing to go back out until the man left.

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Lloyd Morrison, Williams’ colleague at the Costa Mesa office, wasn’t quite so quick. When he told an 80-year-old man that he had not passed the driving test, the old man slugged him and threatened to hang himself. “I said, ‘Isn’t that a bit drastic for not passing your driving test?’ ”

Such emotional outbursts illustrate the importance people place on obtaining a drivers license--particularly in sprawling Southern California where, as Larry Burfitt of the Santa Ana office says, without a drivers license “you’re almost like a second-class citizen.”

For 16-year-olds, examiners say, getting their first drivers license is a peer-group status symbol, an official declaration of independence (for them and for their parents who no longer have to serve as chauffeur). For the elderly, who most often fail because of “lack of caution” on the road, it means taking away their independence.

Before they are ready to take an applicant out on the road, new examiners receive four weeks of formal schooling that include one week of clerical and counter training and three weeks of drive-test training (both theoretical and practical). That includes a one-day truck-driving class and a half-day motorcycle drive-test class taught by a Highway Patrol officer.

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Nerves of Steel

Examiners, who average more than 20 drive tests a day if they’re working out of a busy office, say theirs is a job that requires patience, professional objectivity, a cool head and, at times, nerves of steel and a sense of humor. “If you don’t laugh,” says Morrison, “you’re in trouble.”

Like combat veterans recalling their baptism of fire, the drivers license examiners good-naturedly recount the major accidents and minor fender benders they have experienced in the line of duty.

Parker remembers one applicant “who couldn’t understand too much English. Instead of breaking as directed, he hit the accelerator and slammed into a parked car.” Parker was out of work six months with a spinal injury.

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“It can get pretty serious out there, but experience helps,” said Morrison, whose first accident involved riding with the driver of a commercial tractor-trailer who hit a city bus.

At the sign of an impending driving disaster, Williams observed, “your natural instinct is to grab the steering wheel. It’s like you don’t wait. As soon as you see it, your hand just automatically reacts.”

Williams said that when she started the job six years ago her foot would be sore and her toes would be cramped by the end of the day from pressing down on the floorboard.

“It is dangerous,” acknowledged Grace Magarro of the Santa Ana office. “Even though we’ve been doing it for years, you’re always alert; your stomach’s in a knot.”

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But the license examiners are a hardy bunch.

Pat Gaona of the Santa Ana office was only on her fourth day on the job when she went on a drive test with an elderly woman. The woman hadn’t even made it out of the parking lot when she drove her car into a telephone pole guide wire. The car flipped over onto its side and although they were uninjured, Gaona and the driver had to climb out of the car window. Two hours later, Gaona was back on the job.

“You have to be a very calm person,” she said.

If the license examiners’ nerves do sometimes become frayed, that’s nothing compared to the applicants. For many, taking the drive test brings out every anxiety they ever had about taking a test in school.

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“Even macho guys, you can see their hands shaking and their knees shaking,” said Parker. “It’s really a traumatic thing to go through the drive test.”

In rare cases, the pressure proves tragic. J. Griff of the Los Angeles metro office said he had one elderly applicant die of a heart attack in the parking lot immediately after passing the test.

Calm Them Down

In those cases where the applicant is visibly nervous, examiners say they try to calm them down. They are, the examiners say, on the applicant’s side.

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Griff says he jokes with them to relax them. Parker tries another approach: “I say, ‘Just pretend I’m your friend and this is a ride out to the beach.’ ”

Occasionally, an applicant will fail even before leaving the DMV parking lot.

Griff recalls one woman back in the ‘60s who, “in the heat of summer,” showed up at the DMV wearing only a mink coat and shoes. “As the examiner got into the car, she opened up her coat,” Griff said, laughing: “That was the end (of the test) right there.”

Which leads to the subject of bribes.

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Examiners say they are bribed with everything from whisky, jewelry and clothes to canned goods, candy and dinner dates--not to mention offers of a more intimate nature and cold hard cash.

One creative applicant surreptitiously slipped a roll of peppermint Life Savers into Thompson’s pocket which, he later discovered, contained a rolled-up $20 bill stuck in the center hole. (For the record, Thompson says he turned the bill over to his superior who gave the money back to the applicant along with a severe reprimand.)

For some foreign-born applicants the offerings are less a bribe than a tip. “It’s their custom to offer you something,” explained Morrison, adding that “they’re insulted when we turn down their offer.”

Still other applicants, certain they will fail, send a “ringer” to take the driving test for them. And they’re not too discriminating about who they send: A man in his 50s once showed up at the Costa Mesa office to take the test for a 16-year-old boy.

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Occasionally, even getting into the applicant’s car can be an adventure unto itself.

Williams said one examiner once felt something on her leg but ignored it--until the 16-year-old boy driving the car pulled up to a stop light and casually mentioned that he lost his pet snake last week. The examiner, Williams said with a laugh, got out of the car. Fast.

Burfitt recalls one man who was extremely cautious about making a left-hand turn onto a busy street. The man carefully checked the traffic, looking first to the left and then to the right. Then, with utmost caution, he proceeded to turn. “The only problem was it was a red traffic light,” Burfitt said.

But just because they passed the drive test does not mean the newly minted licensed driver will be a safe driver.

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One elderly Orange County woman passed the drive test with flying colors, only to run her car into the building on the way out.


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