ARTISTIC LICENSE : The DMV Handbook Could Benefit From Being Just a Bit Racier

I boxed up my Classics Illustrated collection when I was 10 years old, and I didn't look back.

The real thing, the long, wordy, ornate thing--Austen, Shakespeare, Homer, Dostoyevsky--is too vast and luscious to be mashed into the one-vocabulary-fits-all multivitamin of predigested prose. Rendering the stately and thunderous and sinuous cadences of the King James Bible into chirpy, friendly comic book dialogue is nothing short of--well, it once was called "an abomination," but now I'm sure it's just "a bad thing."

But in cramming for my recent driver's license renewal with the 1995 edition of the California Driver Handbook, my writing life and my commuting life collided in one conclusion: rewrite.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has built holograms and mag stripes into driver's licenses. It makes appointments for its "customers." It can register voters. And it may be my imagination, but aren't driver's license photos looking a little better?

So why not bring the handbook up to speed? It's not sacrosanct; it gets rewritten every year. And it's a sensible little book, but then common sense hasn't had much purchase lately.

Time for a reality rewrite. Example, page 44, on following behind another vehicle. Instead of "keep a cushion ahead" and "follow the three-second rule," be direct, engaging.

The rewrite: "Everyone knows that one-car-length-away-per-10-m.p.h. rule. They never specify whether it's a VW or a Lincoln Town Car. Anyway, if everybody going 30 miles an hour at rush hour kept three car lengths behind the car in front, then everybody driving from Van Nuys to Downtown would stretch to San Diego. The only time people follow at a safe distance is when the truck up ahead is peppering your windshield with pea gravel at every little bump. So pretend that your paint job is getting pocked every time you hit the freeway, and stay the heck back. "

Page 48, myths about seat belts, is very sobering and helpful. But wouldn't scare tactics work better, like those old "Blood Highway" driver ed films?

Rewrite: "Sure, go ahead and believe a seat belt won't save you. Join the other people in intensive care who also believe that the Mafia killed Nicole and Ron, and Bobby Fischer was Greta Garbo's love child by Albert Einstein. It's the law, but if you want to unbuckle and be thrown 200 feet down the road with a mouthful of fuzzy dice where your teeth used to be, fine, but don't expect taxpayers to foot the bill. And by the way, that Kleenex box in the rear window, the one covered with a crocheted pink poodle? If you smash into something at 40 m.p.h., it can fly forward and kill you like a karate chop. That'd look pretty embarrassing in the papers, wouldn't it? 'Yarn poodle kills driver, 57.' "

Page 40, never wear dark glasses or sunglasses at night.

Rewrite: "Unless you can afford a chauffeur or a taxi, forget the Jack Nicholson Ray-Ban look after sunset. Remember, this is a guy who attacked a Mercedes with a 3-iron, perhaps thinking he was was Jack Nicklaus--do you want to take that kind of risk?"

Page 20, maximum speed limit.

Rewrite: "It doesn't matter, ever, that someone else is driving faster, including members of the new 'Leadfoot Congress'--the CHP will get you. You. Everyone else can be doing 90, with the Brink's job loot fluttering out the trunk, shooting off AK-47s and tossing bags of cocaine onto the freeway, and you will be pulled over for going 58."

Page 47, allow a cushion for problem drivers . . . people who are distracted . . . drivers who slow down for what seems to be no apparent reason . . .

Rewrite: "Lt me count the ways. The guy plucking his nose hairs in the rearview mirror. People with carpeted dashboards, because they drive like they're about to smash their heads into them. People whose bumper stickers express a desire to join Jesus soon, because they will not care whether they take a fellow driver with them when they go. Drivers of cars with body rust, because they come from somewhere else and are probably navigating the Santa Ana Freeway using a map to the stars' homes. Tanker trucks labeled 'flammable' and 'inflammable'; if an entire industry doesn't know the difference between what will and won't blow up, you don't want to wind up a test case."

It could be more humiliating than death by poodle box.

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