just made it harder
privilege you must earn
I say to a co-worker. "I'm off to the DMV. I'm long overdue
to get my Oregon Driver License."
"Did you study?" she asks.
"Study?" I reply.
"Yeah," she says earnestly. "Study."
This is a fellow ex-Californian (and former member of the LAPD).
She tells me that the Oregon test is pretty hard and studying is
not a bad idea.
Sure, I'll study. On my lunch hour right after I email a
few friends and check my online horoscope. I proceed to download
the manual and skim it for at least 20 minutes. Looks easy enough
a few weird questions about large vehicles and trailers and
some wacky looking diagrams. But other than that, at a quick glance
it appears manageable.
Feeling prepared, I cruise over to the downtown Portland DMV. After
filling out the prerequisite forms, a friendly clerk directs me
to one of several touch-screen stations where an electronic version
of the test is administered. I sit down, log on, begin.
Soon into the test, I discover it's mainly comprised of esoteric,
"Oregon-centric" questions that any self-respecting, California
city-girl transplant should never be expected to know. For example:
If you transport a canoe or kayak on the top of your vehicle, it
a) 10 ft.
b) 12 ft.
c) 14 ft.
d) 16 ft.
e) I don't own a canoe or a kayak. And if I need one, I'll
rent. That way, I don't have to schlep it on top of my car.
Well, you can miss seven out of 35, and I missed eight. I fail.
"Don't feel too bad," Mr. DMV Clerk says with a smile,
"we just made it harder."
A week later, after recovering from Failed Test #1, I pull out
my copy of the Oregon Driver Manual. While thumbing through, I realize
that maybe it demands more than a quick once over. And that actually
it's kind of thick 110 pages thick.
I decide a targeted approach is best: concentrate on obvious sections,
such as "Pedestrians" and "Alcohol and Driving Safety,"
and speed-read "filler" sections, such as "Dealing
that day, I again find myself at the DMV in front of the test station's
ominous touch screen. I don't like the touch screen. In my opinion,
it's user-unfriendly. When you miss a question, the touch screen
tells you right away. With each and every error, it keeps you apprised
as to how much closer you are to failing.
Test #2 begins. By the time my sixth error registers (remember
you can only miss seven), I am staving off a full-blown anxiety
Then, the evil touch screen, sensing my fear, hurls the fatal blow:
If you are in an accident that results in the death of a large
game animal, such as a deer, bear or elk, you should:
a) Notify the local animal shelter
b) Notify the local law enforcement agency
c) Notify the Oregon Fish and Game Department
d) Notify the nearest veterinarian
e) Panic, call 911, and tell the dispatcher that you hit a really
big animal, don't have a clue what to do, but calling the fire department
seems like a good place to start.
Wrong answer. Failed again.
This time around, Mr. DMV Clerk sees that I'm visibly upset. "Next
time," he cheerfully volunteers, "take the written version
you won't get as nervous. The touch screen really psychs
OK, so now I'm not only upset, I'm downright humiliated. On the
way home, to make myself feel better, I tell myself, "I'm a
college graduate. I get a good-driver's discount on my car insurance.
I'm a law-abiding citizen."
At least I thought I was, until I get pulled over for a "soft"
After a friendly, yet patronizing, lecture about the dangers of
"soft" stops, the officer asks to see my license. A sense
of dread sweeps over me. Sure enough, Mr. Police Officer busts me
for my California license and writes me a big, fat ticket
While handing me my citation, he tells me, "If you get an
Oregon license within the next 30 days and appear in traffic court,
the judge will waive the ticket."
My vehicle-related problems seem to be piling on. My car insurance
is repeatedly requesting my Oregon license number. The most recent
request is really more of a threat: no Oregon Driver License number,
no car insurance. The insurance company has assigned me a deadline
ironically, it's the same date as my court appearance.
Mere coincidence? Or, have I stumbled upon the "vast right-wing
conspiracy" that the Clintons talked about? Or perhaps it's
the "industrial-military complex" referred to in the Unabomber's
letters. Regardless, it's all beginning to come together: the pseudo-sympathetic
DMV employee, the creepy touch screen, the smug cop, the unmovable
court date, the relentless insurance company demands. Indeed, the
world looks different when you're in trouble with "The Man."
Paranoia soon gives way to depression. The thought of not being
able to legally drive makes me feel like a low life. A loser. Someone
accused of "life-style crimes," like loitering or public
drunkenness. I find solace at Ben and Jerry's (two scoops of coconut
almond fudge, please).
At least I can walk there.
Two weeks prior to my court date, I begin to study and I
mean really study. I take my highlighter to the Oregon Driver Manual
with a vengeance not seen since my college final exams. The weekend
before the test, I bring my dog-eared copy of the manual with me
to a lengthy quiz session, at a nearby café, scrupulously
administered by a friend. We use my specially made flash cards.
"Name two causes for hydroplaning," my friend asks.
"Speed and low tire inflation," I shoot back.
"Correct!" exclaims my friend.
"True or false: The road is likely to be more slippery when
ice is near the freezing point rather than at lower temperatures."
"True!" I state with confidence.
"Correct!" exclaims my friend.
"OK, fill in the blank: A funeral escort vehicle may exceed
the speed limit by __ miles per hour."
"10!" I answer with gusto.
"Correct!" my friend says with pride, "I think you're
Test Day arrives. There's a lot riding on Test #3. The stakes are
high $175, cancelled car insurance, humiliation. I feel edgy,
but prepared. I take a deep breath and enter the downtown DMV, barely
keeping my paranoia in check.
I request the written test. I take my time, twirling my pencil
and thinking through my answers in a calm, rational way, sketching
diagrams when necessary. For the last question, God smiles on me:
True or False: It is illegal to discharge a bow and arrow across
I score 89 percent. Not even a "yes" check mark in the
organ donor box can put a damper on this triumphant moment. I gleefully
whip out my lipstick in preparation for my official photo.
Moments later, I receive my newly minted Oregon Driver License,
but not before handing over the California version. It's a bittersweet
moment. I feel like I'm giving up citizenship to the nation-state
that used to be my home.
The experience of acquiring an Oregon license has forever changed
me. I now know the feeling of having "the system" kick
in on you. I also know that you cannot park within 75 feet of a
fire station driveway on the opposite side of the street, and that
the human eye takes seven seconds to recover from headlight glare.
the test, I drove a car. Now, I operate a "motor vehicle."
But really, the essence of this tale is best summed up on page
one, paragraph one, in the Oregon Driver Manual, which states in
bold type: "Driving is a privilege you must earn, and not a
Take my word they're not kidding.