N o v e m b e r   2 0 0 2

Guest Writer

‘We just made it harder’
A privilege you must earn
by Laurie Harquail

K," 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 can extend:
a) 10 ft.
b) 12 ft.
c) 14 ft.
d) 16 ft.

How about:
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.

Wrong answer.

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."

Gee thanks.

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 with Emergencies."

Later 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 attack.

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

How about:
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 people out."

Gee, thanks.

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" stop.

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 – for $175.

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."

Gee, thanks.

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 ready."

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 a highway.


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.

Before 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 right."

Take my word – they're not kidding.

E-mail Laurie at lcharquail@earthlink.net, and see more from her in our archives.

site design / management / host: ae
© 2001-2005 nwdrizzle.com / all rights reserved.