DMV boss trims silly test questions, tries to fix license renewal mess. Can he succeed?

DMV director Steve Gordon stands outside the department headquarters in Sacramento in 2019.
DMV director Steve Gordon stands outside the department headquarters in Sacramento in 2019.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to the California DMV, is this a case of brand new year, same old tune?

It’s a positive sign that the massive bureaucracy’s director has been checking out reader complaints about the license renewal process for drivers after age 70, and here’s a news bulletin:

He’s even tossing out some of the crazy test questions that many of you have been griping about.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s dip into the mail bag, which continues to overflow with tales from the Department of Motor Vehicles.


Dave Warburton, 76, of Santa Clarita went to renew his license the first week of January and was told there was no record of his pre-registration in the computer system.

“Not off to a good start,” he wrote in an email.

But after the registration problem was solved, Warburton passed the vision test, so things were looking up. Until he moved on to the knowledge test.

“As I began the test, I heard the woman on my right complaining vociferously to a worker that she had failed the test three times in a row,” said Warburton, a retired marketing industry copywriter.

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

Then Warburton flunked, despite having dutifully studied the DMV’s driving handbook. He swears some of the queries were arcane — almost as if they were created as trick questions —and useless in determining anyone’s ability to drive safely. For instance: As you approach a blind curve on a winding mountain road, how far away should you begin honking your horn to warn oncoming traffic?

“Cripe, what kind of question is that?” Warburtron asked, telling me he threw his hands up in frustration. “I answered 100 feet. The correct answer was 200 feet.”

Warburton took the test again and passed, barely. But the experience left him in a lather, and feeling sorry for DMV employees manning the daily conveyor belt of human misery.


“I saw several other seniors near tears,” he said. “I was literally shaking when I left the DMV with my new license in hand.”

I could fill a book with tales like this one, but let’s move on to DMV Director Steve Gordon and his plan for fixing this mess. In November, I was a guest on Larry Mantle’s AirTalk program at KPCC, along with Gordon, and I expected him to push back. But that’s not what happened.

“I think Steve raises some valid points, and I really have appreciated his reporting on this,” he said.

A line of people wait to be helped at a  DMV office stretches around the building.
Steve Gordon said he has visited every one of the state’s 180 DMV offices to watch and to listen.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Gordon was a successful Silicon Valley tech executive who didn’t need the job he took in 2019, but after standing in an hours-long DMV line in San Jose, he was encouraged by his wife to be a fixer rather than a complainer. At the time, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the agency’s technology “byzantine” and acknowledged that Californians were legitimately “outraged” by soul-sapping DMV encounters. Then he chucked Gordon into the gaping jaws of the merciless bureaucratic beast.

I caught up with Gordon and Deputy Director Anita Gore a few days ago, and we talked for nearly an hour. He said he has visited every one of the state’s 180 DMV offices to watch and to listen, and that he even reads mail from consumers with complaints or suggestions.


Gordon said there’s still a long way to go in reshaping the DMV, but he touted the agency’s progress in reducing waiting times and making it easier to take care of routine tasks, like license renewal, online rather than in person.

So what does this mean for people who need to renew after age 70, as I’ll have to do this year in October?

One of my biggest complaints has been that license-renewal options were not clearly laid out by the DMV on its website or elsewhere. Before the pandemic, drivers 70 and older were required to renew their licenses in person. That requirement was suspended until January of 2023, when confusion reigned .

A lot of people were under the impression they had no choice but to renew their licenses with an in-person knowledge test, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. The DMV was doing a lousy job of clarifying several options and who was eligible for each.

And then one day I heard from actor Mitchell Group, of Encino, who said the eLearning renewal option was a cinch, and fail-proof. It was like a video training course with review questions after each segment, Group said. Get one wrong, and you could try again until you got it right.

Crazy, right? Some people were suffering through DMV cattle lines and flunking crazy tests; others breezed through the whole process without leaving the comfort of their own sofas.


The DMV promised last fall to clear all of this up, and the result is a new website for drivers 70 and older that became operational Dec. 28. It’s an improvement, I’d say, but while looking it over with Gordon, who was on the line from Sacramento, I told him I thought it needed some tweaks.

Gordon agreed.

“I looked at it again today,” he said, “and there were like, five things I want to change on it already.”

My advice to readers is that when you get your renewal notice, go online to begin the process and opt for eLearning if you’re eligible (you don’t qualify if you have more than one point on your record for moving violations).

Another important development is that new legislation by Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) could make it possible for you to avoid an in-person DMV license renewal visit all the way up to age 80. Details are still being worked out by DMV staff, but under the same legislation, you might also be able to send in clearance from your eye doctor rather than do an in-person vision test.

As for test questions, more than 20 have been removed from the rotation. One asked what a driver should do when seeing a road sign that says “NEV USE ONLY” or “NEV ROUTE.” Readers had complained to me that they didn’t know what NEV means (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, or golf cart), or couldn’t imagine the issue comes into play often enough to waste space on a license renewal test.

Another question, now removed, had asked: “What is another name for the hand-to-hand steering method?” I’m still not sure why anyone would know or care. Also shredded was a question asking the minimum manslaughter sentence for killing someone while evading police pursuit, and another that asked what the punishment is if you “evade a law enforcement officer performing their duties, but no bodily injury occurs.”


By the way, Gordon said on the radio show in November that he’s happy to hear opinions on what other questions should be slashed. You know where to find me, and I know where to find him.

In fact, I think I need to call him again.

I just heard from Santa Clarita resident Dave Warburton’s wife, Bonnie, who told me she tried on Friday to renew her license by opting for the eLearning course online. The program loaded, she said, and then froze.

“This technology is very reliable and works almost all of the time,” Gordon said.

But it didn’t for Bonnie. She was on the phone with the DMV and got some help, only to have things get fouled up again. She said another DMV employee told her this has been going on for several weeks.

“Some people can’t log in, and some can’t load the video,” Bonnie said after investing a couple of hours with nothing to show for it. “It’s just so goofed up.”

And to think, Gordon had told me the E in eLearning stands for “enjoyment.”