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Tough to Be Cool With New Driving Rules

Brenda Loree is a Times correspondent

You have to feel at least a pang of sympathy for teenagers applying for learners permits these days. As of this week, it almost takes a court order, a note from your mom, plus mom herself riding shotgun, before a 16-year-old can put a key in the ignition.

I’m on the fence about this. It’s true that 16-year-olds are the most accident-prone drivers on the road. So I can see how someone might not want to be caught driving in the same state with one.

On the other hand, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has made it next to impossible to be both 16 and cool, as my generation defined “cool.”

On his 16th birthday, my husband coolly showed up at the Ventura DMV office, took and passed his written and behind-the-wheel tests, got his temporary license, and immediately began terrorizing the good citizens of Ventura County in his 1940 Chevy coupe with dual carburetors.

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“I was cool,” he says.

He even had a “cool” route.

“You’d drag Main at 25 miles an hour, starting at Foster’s Freeze, then cruise up to Merle’s Drive-In, turn around in the Sears parking lot, then do it all over again.

“You’d do this cool wave, a ‘mechanical man’ wave. No excitement. Anyone who got excited wasn’t cool.”

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Cruising Main Street today with a big STUDENT DRIVER sign atop your Honda Civic with a driving instructor somehow doesn’t lend itself to the mechanical wave.

The new driving restrictions are so onerous that a 16-year-old can’t cruise down to the mall without first loading up the car with a nun, a probation officer, a notary public and a certified driving instructor. The instructor probably has a nerd pack filled with pens, the faster to pull one out and mark you down for your parallel-parking attempts.

That may be an exaggeration. Actually, the new licensing requirements for provisional drivers say that during the first six months, you must be accompanied by a licensed driver 25 years old or older, a parent, a guardian or a driving instructor when transporting passengers who are under 20 years of age.

Now where is the fun in that?

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If memory serves, when I was 16 back in Kansas, I would load up my parents’ ‘55 tu-tone Pontiac Bonneville with my three best girlfriends after school. We would peel out of town and hurtle down every two-lane blacktop in Labette County, terrorizing the Hereford cows grazing behind the barbed wire fences that lined both sides of the road.

I don’t think we did the mechanical wave--we were, after all, in Kansas, so we weren’t that cool.

Still it was no mean feat to startle a cow, especially a placid Kansas cow.

Looking back at my husband’s accomplishment of such a lofty goal as cruising Main and looking cool in Southern California--and my own careening along farm-to-market roads and frightening livestock in rural Kansas for no apparent reason--we might both be poster children for tightening up teen driving laws.

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There are some things that haven’t changed at the DMV. For instance, they still have that little 8-by-5 California Driver Handbook.

The office decor, a muted, bureaucratic gray, hasn’t changed. You wouldn’t mistake it with, say, the lobby in a Hyatt Grand.

You still get to stand up while taking the written exam, too. (My theory is that the DMV doesn’t want us to get too comfortable down there and start hanging out.)

They say the written exam has changed somewhat: no more trick questions. As far as I’m concerned, any question about trailer hitches is a trick question.

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That goes for questions about railroad crossings, too. Here is a sample of one that may actually turn up on your written exam:

You are within 100 feet of a railroad crossing. The crossing has no gates or controls and you cannot see the tracks 400 feet in both directions. How fast should you be driving?

10 mph . . .

15 mph . . .

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25 mph . . .

The answer is at the end of this paragraph. If you got it wrong, join the club. It’s 15 mph.


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