Column: Why can’t Californians drive? The DMV’s lousy handbook is partly to blame
Milt Hess is a retired computer consultant who volunteers as an adult-literacy tutor at the Santa Barbara Public Library. He’s been working recently with a senior who wants to improve her writing.
The woman mentioned she’ll have to renew her California driver’s license next year, so they took a look together at the Department of Motor Vehicles handbook.
“There were some paragraphs that she’d read, and she kind of understood what they were saying,” Hess, 78, recalled the other day. “There were others where she’d look at me and say she had no idea what was happening.”
Intrigued, he decided to delve more deeply into the DMV handbook.
Hess discovered that much of the contents were written at a level that would be impenetrable to anyone without an advanced degree — and he used an established academic literacy scale to determine that.
“Look, I have a doctorate and I had to work to figure out some of the language,” he told me. “Think of all the millions of people who don’t have a high school or college degree.”
So if you’ve been wondering why so many Californians don’t seem to know how to drive — and you know you have — there’s at least one explanation: They have no clue what’s in the manual, through no fault of their own.
The DMV admits there’s a problem.
“We agree the handbook is written at a level that is above where it should be,” said Anita Gore, a spokeswoman for the state agency. “We are currently planning on making it more customer-friendly in the near future.”
There’s a lot of work to do.
To parse the language of the handbook, Hess employed what’s known as the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which determine both accessibility of language and the grade level required for comprehension.
You can try this yourself. Current versions of Microsoft Word are capable of running Flesch-Kincaid tests for reading ease and grade level. Go to the File menu, Options, Proofing. Click the box that says “show readability statistics.”
Hess pointed me toward Page 34 of the handbook: “Laws and Rules of the Road.” Under “General Information,” it says:
“Never assume other drivers will give you the right-of-way. Respecting the right-of-way of others is not limited to situations such as yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, or watching carefully to ensure the right-of way of bicyclists and motorcyclists. Yield your right-of-way when it helps to prevent collisions.”
Hess observed that the concept of “right-of-way” isn’t defined. The second sentence is needlessly long. The third sentence is ambiguous at best.
The paragraph has a Flesch-Kincaid readability score of 38.6 out of 100, which means it’s “difficult to read” and requires a college-level education for full comprehension. (The higher the score, the better in terms of readability.)
Then there’s this gem from the same page:
“If you approach a pedestrian crossing at a corner or other crosswalk, even if the crosswalk is in the middle of the block, at a corner with or without traffic signal lights, whether or not the crosswalk is marked by painted lines, you are required to exercise caution and reduce your speed, or stop if necessary, to ensure the safety of the pedestrian.”
The Flesch-Kincaid test gives this 63-word jumble a score of 15.3, which means it’s “very difficult to read; best understood by university graduates.”
“The handbook is essentially of no value because it’s so hard to follow,” Hess said. “People remember enough from it to pass their test, but very little will be internalized. You won’t know the laws.”
Needless to say, many official documents are difficult to follow. Most analyses of the U.S. Constitution conclude an advanced degree is necessary to comprehend every word. A 2014 study found that Internal Revenue Service tax instructions are “very difficult” for people to understand.
But if there’s one official document you’d want to be accessible, it’s the driver handbook.
Hess wrote to the DMV with his concerns and offered some suggestions. For example, Hess proposed this alternative wording for the right-of-way passage:
“When a vehicle, pedestrian or bicycle is entitled to go first, usually at an intersection, it is said to have the ‘right-of-way.’ When others have the right-of-way, you must yield to them. Even when you have the right-of-way, don’t assume that others will yield to you; be alert, and yield if necessary to avoid a collision.”
Unlike the original, which had a readability score of 38.6, Hess’ version scores 61.1, which places it at “plain English, easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.”
He shared with me a letter he received from Veronica Walker, a DMV manager who said she was responding on behalf of DMV Director Steve Gordon.
“The Department of Motor Vehicles makes every effort to ensure information in the California Driver Handbook is accurate and consistent with existing law,” she explained.
This suggests the agency has been more interested in accurately reflecting legislative and bureaucratic verbiage than in making the handbook accessible to ordinary drivers.
Walker noted in her letter that the passages Hess cited — the one about right-of-way and the one about pedestrians — “directly correlate with the provisions outlined in Division 11, Chapters 4 and 5 of the California Vehicle Code.”
Indeed, Chapter 4 of the code states that “the driver of any vehicle approaching a stop sign at the entrance to, or within, an intersection shall stop as required by Section 22450. The driver shall then yield the right-of-way to any vehicles which have approached from another highway, or which are approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to those vehicles until he or she can proceed with reasonable safety.”
You can see the problem. If correlating with a linguistic stew like that is the goal, the DMV handbook succeeds wildly.
If, on the other hand, the goal is to clearly communicate these concepts to ordinary people, the handbook is a spectacular failure.
Walker told Hess the latest version of the handbook is already “in final revision.” She said his suggestions will be taken into consideration for the next edition.
The DMV told me this won’t happen before 2021 at the earliest.
Here’s my suggestion: Do what Hess did and test-drive handbook language with the Flesch-Kincaid tests. Then ask real people to sample what’s been written before settling on a final draft.
This is obviously more labor-intensive and time-consuming than simply mirroring what’s in the vehicle code.
But driving in California is hard enough.
The DMV should be making people better drivers, not worse.