Chuck Damato, 86, of Thousand Oaks, and four friends, all in their eighties, meet regularly at the McDonald’s in Westlake Village, and lately, the conversation has been about the Department of Motor Vehicle’s (DMV) revised written test for seniors — who passed, who failed again and what methods they are using to study for next time.
“The last time I took the test [before the 2023 revision], I got one hundred percent,” says Damato. “It wasn’t hard at all. They changed it this year, and I am thoroughly convinced that the person that wrote these questions for this test couldn’t pass it themself. They twist it so much that you know the right answer, but they make it look wrong. I’m convinced this thing is rigged because they don’t want seniors on the road.”
Damato has been driving for 70 years and spent 25 years in the automotive industry, during which he says he drove 1 million miles. He now works four days a week and drives all the time — but twice in the last two months, he failed the test, missing 11 out of 25 questions his first time, then “improving” to 10 missed his second time. He says he has always been a poor test-taker, but it has no bearing on his driving, and he has never struggled to pass a DMV test before.
His friend Lorenzo, 86, of Dos Vientos, retired after a financially successful career in several industries. He drives high-dollar vehicles but has failed the DMV’s written test four times, missing 6 and 7 questions out of 25. To pass, you must miss no more than 5.
Lorenzo was embarrassed to tell anyone — at first.
“I felt real bad, but after I heard of so many people failing, I said, ‘I failed, too,’” he says.
The five men say the new questions are irrelevant and confusing. They cite one about when it is legal to leave a small child in a car. The wrong answer is “Never.” The right answer is when someone over the age of 12 is with the child in the car.
Another question demands the test taker know the exact minimum distance that must be kept between one’s vehicle and a bicyclist, according to the State of California (Answer: three feet). Or precisely how many feet, at minimum, one should stay behind a truck on the highway.
“I’ve read the [test preparation] book three times,” says Damato. “I don’t need that book to tell me how much distance I need between an 18-wheeler and my car on the freeway going 65 miles an hour.”
His wife, Rosemarie, 84, has spent hours studying for the test, and “She is petrified; she doesn’t even want to go,” Chuck says. She tried to take it recently at the DMV office in Simi Valley, but they turned her down, he says, “because they ran out of tests.”
All the men — who are mentally sharp and physically capable and don’t wear hearing aids or use canes or walkers — say they understand the need to keep some seniors off the road as declining awareness and mental capacity render some dangerous. Or, as the DMV puts it, “As we age, there are numerous factors that can affect our driving skills, and hinder our ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. The California Department of Motor Vehicles wants older drivers to maintain their driving independence as long as they continue to drive safely and confidently.”
But the revised test seems intentionally obscure, even punitive to them. Every time Lorenzo goes to the DMV, he strikes up conversations with other seniors and asks how many times they have taken the test. Most reply two or three times. At McDonald’s, Bill, 84, a member of the group of five, claims to have passed on his first try. Another man, 81, happily renewed his license during the suspension of the senior test during COVID; he has another four years before his next test.
“So many of those questions aren’t really relevant, especially if you’ve been driving 70 years.”
“I hear regularly from people who are confused, frustrated and angry about the [senior test-taking] process, and some of them have repeatedly flunked tests despite spotless driving records,” Lopez wrote in the Oct. 7 piece. “On Friday afternoon, even the DMV acknowledged this mess, and a spokesperson told me the agency is working on some fixes …”
Mike, 84, of Thousand Oaks, a retired air conditioning technician, told the Guardian, “So many of those questions aren’t really relevant, especially if you’ve been driving 70 years.” Or, as Lopez put it, some questions are “infuriatingly trivial and useless in determining driving ability.”
His column quoted John Suggs, 76, of Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains, who said he got a test question about “how far your chest is supposed to be from an airbag. The answers I had to choose from were 8, 10 and 12 inches, with 10 being the correct answer. That level of specificity was laughable.”
Another anecdote read: “Alysia Vinitzian, 70, a West L.A. talent coach, said she flunked twice before passing on her third try, and she recalls two ‘ridiculous’ questions in particular. One was about how to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning, ‘but they offered no context’ regarding the specific situation. The other was about sharing the road with NEVs, with no explanation as to what an NEV is. She later learned that’s a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, like a golf cart.”
A woman named Joan Moon, 77, a Ladera Heights real estate agent, called her second failed test “soul-crushing.”
“I’m not a dummy,” she told the Times. “I went to college and I’ve been a realtor for 30 years and most people think I’m intelligent, but I took the third test and failed. Both the test course and the apps said they would encompass all the questions that would be on the test. That turned out to be untrue. The four questions I missed were ones I had not seen on any of the learning tools.”
Damato can testify that after three failures, the DMV charges $41 per test and will continue to grant license extensions apparently indefinitely. But multiple re-takes become costly, as does time away from work because the DMV is not open evenings or weekends.
Damato called the DMV to ask them how he should prepare. Their answer was basically: Memorize the book.
He may not have to. The DMV public affairs unit sent a statement to the Times’ Lopez which read:
“The DMV has heard from seniors and others who have difficulty taking the knowledge test and knowing when they are eligible for the online test or the eLearning course. As a result, the DMV is currently revising the online driver’s license application. In 2024, our customers should see improvement in descriptions of services available, how to engage with the eLearning course or online test, and experience a smoother flow to the process. The DMV is also revising the webpage information about the knowledge test types. Those changes will be available in the coming weeks.”
That may spell relief for capable Conejo Valley senior drivers and many others around the Golden State. Meanwhile, the McDonald’s men speak enviously of siblings in other states where onerous senior tests are not administered. Some talk of getting a driver’s license in another state, like Nevada.
“If I don’t pass this test, I lose my job.”
“If I don’t pass this test, I lose my job,” Damato says. “If I lose my income, it pays my house payment. So I’ve got things at stake with this stupid test.”