When we moved to California last year, i had to deal with a US DMV for the first time. During my years in Maryland, i never owned a car, and my Australian license was still valid, so i just used to drive on that (i know, i know, that was wrong). But when we moved to California, we bought a car, and my Aussie license was about to give up the ghost, so i had to get a California license.
Now, if you move to CA from another US state, all you have to do to get a license is take the written test, get a photo taken, and get your license. But if your only prior license is a foreign one, you also get to take the driving test. Yippee! Anyway, here’s my story:
The first step in the process actually happened in the Bay Area. We were up in San Francisco visiting my wife’s family, and i decided to get the application and the written test out of the way. I went to the Daly City DMV, just south of San Francisco and a short freeway run from my wife’s mother’s place. When we got there, there were people everywhere. It looked like bedlam. I joined the initial “triage” line, and shuffled forward to the desk where they give you the forms you need and assign you a number. The woman at the desk was very friendly and helpful, and made some small talk while she got my materials together. I went away to fill out the application, and then found one of the few empty seats to sit and wait for my number.
Those who have been to a California DMV know that there are different letter categories for different types of services, and that your letter is followed by a number. Different windows serve different letters, and you have to wait for your particular letter-number combination to be called. I’m not sure how many letter categories there are, but it must be at least 5 or 6. Anyway, when you’re sitting there with G-138 in your hand, and the G’s are currently at about 45, and they’re also calling a whole bunch of S’s and L’s and whatever else, you know you’re in for quite a wait.
It was actually quite lucky for me that i had some time to kill, because i hadn’t so much as opened the California Driver’s Handbook before setting foot in the DMV. My 2-hour wait allowed me to get through the driving regulations twice before being called. While i think i probably would have scraped by the multiple-choice exam without the book, there were a few specific details that i probably would have tripped up on had i not had a chance to read the rules.
After being called, i gave my application and payment to the man behind the desk. He sent me around to have my picture taken, which involved another 10 or 15 minutes in line, and then the woman there asked if i wanted to do the paper test immediately. Damn straight i did, so into the booth i went. The test itself took maybe 7 or 8 minutes, but the line to get it looked over was a snaking queue that took almost half an hour to get me to the front. The woman looked over my test, using a template, told me i passed, congratulated me, and told me i was only allowed to drive with a licensed driver in the passenger’s seat. So, after 20+ years on the road, i made it back to where i was at age 17.
While i was in that place for over 3 hours, it was in no way an awful experience. I knew it was probably going to take a long time, so i was prepared for it. I came in contact with five different staff members in the course of my visit, and every single one of them was friendly, polite, efficient, and clearly knew their job. I also heard other staff members very patiently explaining things to customers who were having problems of one sort or another, and the only glitch of any sort was when one staff member calmly said to an increasingly loud and obnoxious customer, “It’s not going to solve anything if you get all upset. Let’s just see if we can work out what the problem is.”
Sure, i had better things to do than spend 3 hours in that drab cinderblock building. And if you’re in a hurry, i’m sure it can be a bit frustrating. But it was nowhere near the soul-destroying experience that i had half-expected, and the staff were a model of professionalism and courtesy.
A couple of weeks later i took my driving test back home in San Diego. Because i had booked an appointment, i had a specific time for my test, and when i arrived i did not have to wait at all. The woman i dealt with at the desk was just as friendly and efficient as the people in Daly City. The examiner was, of course, all business, and didn’t bother with any pleasantries or light conversation, but that’s to be expected when you’re taking a driving test. Despite having driven for over 20 years, i was actually a little nervous about the test, even though the worst thing that happens is that you have to come back a couple of weeks later and take it again. Anyway, i apparently did OK, because he passed me, and i’m now the proud owner of a California driver’s license.
That license, though, could be the subject of a Pit thread all its own. I’m sure that the DMV’s budget problems must be a result of all the people they pay specifically to make your license photo as unflattering as possible. Mine seems to have added about 15 pounds to my face alone, and there has been some sort of color shift that gives the whole thing a burned orange tint, making me look like an Oompa Loompa.
Anyway, here’s a raised glass to the people at the DMV. You all do a heck of a job.