SAN JOSE — Three out of every four would-be California drivers flunked the state’s written driving test on their first attempt after the state overhauled the exam last summer.
“I don’t think people are stupid,” said Scott Masten, a Department of Motor Vehicles researcher who helped revamp the state’s exams.
“People just aren’t reading the handbook.”
The overhaul was, in part, a response to the rise in failure rates over the past 14 years.
From 1986 to 1999, the proportion of California’s first-timers who flunked the written driving test more than doubled, from 32 percent to 67 percent.
The test should be a snap, DMV officials say, if test-takers memorize the rules in the California Driver Handbook.
Last year. 3 million
But for Donna McCullough, who had studied the handbook for half an hour, the quiz was not so easy.
Sitting in her car in the parking lot of the Mountain View DMV office recently, McCullough said she had missed 10 items out of 36, five more than what’s allowed.
“You could study this book for two months and still fail,” said McCullough, who recently moved to California from Georgia.
“Who has time to study for two months for a stupid driving test? I’m an educated person. I’m a teacher.”
“It’s not an issue of how smart you are,” said Robert Hagge, a DMV research manager.
“You don’t have to be a college graduate to do well on it. What you have to do is read the handbook.”
California’s DMV has a national reputation for taking the written and driving tests seriously, said Charles Butler, director of safety services for the national American Automobile Association.
However, failure rates are not available from other states because many don’t record the data.
Over the years, California’s tests, available in 34 languages, have been continually tweaked to reflect changing state laws and new road rules, DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff said.
Because of the unexplained increase in the failure rate, DMV officials put Masten and his research team to work on a yearlong project to rewrite the tests from scratch.
“What we wanted to find out is, is this lack of knowledge or poor testing?” said DMV’s Nossoff.
Pilot tests were distributed at 20 field offices statewide this year.
The DMV declined to release the tests’ failure rates until the San Jose Mercury News filed a request under the state’s public records act.
The newspaper reported the results Friday.
And those results were: 77 percent of test-takers flunked the pilot tests on their first try. And 56 percent of those renewing their licenses, presumably experienced drivers who know road rules, failed.
DMV officials still hope that as people adjust to the new tests the failure rate will drop.