Column: DMV dumps stupid questions for license renewal, but the 'virtual assistant' needs work

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - AUGUST 07: A line of people wait to be helped at a California Department of Motor Vehicles Office stretches around the building at the South LA location on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
In November, 19,000 people of all ages took the DMV's eLearning course, compared with 47,500 people in April. Above, a line outside a DMV office in South L.A. in 2018. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A quick look at census data (more than 11,000 people turn 65 each day in the U.S.), along with my own rough calculations, suggest that several hundred people are turning 70 each day in the great state of California, and every 10 minutes or so, one or more of them email me about their license renewal adventures with the DMV.

I get the usual, always entertaining horror stories about testing: (“They put in ridiculous questions that do not pertain to driving,” said 75-year-old Dahana Klerer of Newport Beach, who flunked twice and added, “I’m not a stupid person but they make you feel really stupid.”)

And increasingly, I get success stories:

“I had no problem,” said 79-year-old Ruth Gleason of Ridgecrest, who added: “Thank you and Steve Gordon at the DMV for working to alleviate the test-taking fears for over-70 CA drivers.”

In a half-century career as a journalist, I never expected to share an accolade with a DMV director. But this is further proof that life can be filled with new adventures after you turn 70, one of which involves license renewal, which has to be completed every five years after the big 7-0.

If you’re wondering why Klerer had such a tough time renewing her license while Gleason had an easy time of it, it’s because Klerer took her renewal test at a DMV office while Gleason opted for the remote, do-it-from-home eLearning course.

Read more: Column: Who’s more dangerous behind the wheel — drivers 70 and older, or 30 and younger?

If you’re coming up on a renewal, repeat after me:


To learn more about how to do that, go to the website and click on the driver’s license and license renewal options. If you opt for eLearning, by the way, you’ll still have to then go to a DMV office for an eye test and photo, but you’ll be ahead of the game if you’ve already completed the testing requirement at home.

The eLearning option is like a mini-driver’s ed course that takes about 30 or 40 minutes to complete, and the best part is that you can’t flunk. In fact, the website calls it the “No-Fail online eLearning course.” You’ll be asked a series of questions, and if you get one wrong, you can guess again until you get it right.

Steve Gordon outside DMV headquarters in Sacramento.
Steve Gordon, director of the DMV, recommends the eLearning course for drivers who need to test to renew their licenses. "Having the knowledge is more important than the ability to take a written test," he said. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Gordon, a former Silicon Valley tech exec, implemented the eLearning course because he thinks it’s a better educational tool than the old-fashioned test.

“Having the knowledge is more important than the ability to take a written test,” he said.

If that’s true, here’s a thought:

Why not just eliminate the traditional so-called knowledge test and offer eLearning exclusively? Seems like it would save drivers a lot of unnecessary stress, and save the DMV the hassle of administering the tests.

The eLearning course fits Gordon’s mission to make it easier to do DMV business remotely rather than going to an office. And the agency has just announced that eLearning is now available in Spanish. 

California drivers are catching on, with a growing number of them using the eLearning option, which is available to drivers of all ages. In November, 19,000 people took the eLearning course, but in April the number had swelled to 47,500.

By the way, Klerer gave up on the frustrating in-person process, opted for eLearning, and easily renewed in the end. But she was absolutely right about the dumb questions on the traditional test.

Even the DMV admits it, and officials have told me in the past that some of the dumber questions are being removed from the testing rotation.

Read more: Column: He was the oldest man in the U.S., and his loving caretaker was with him to the end

Readers have complained to me that it’s taking too long, so I asked DMV spokesperson Anita Gore about that. Several questions have now been axed, she said, and “30 or so” more are slated for removal beginning in July. Already gone, according to Gore, are the following head-scratching, who-cares questions:

“What is another name for the hand-to-hand steering method?”

“What is the minimum number of years of imprisonment … for a person … convicted of manslaughter resulting from evading law enforcement during a pursuit?”

Questions slated for the DMV dumpster include:

“Which of the following is an appropriate decrease in speed when driving in packed snow?”

“To identify hazards, you should scan the road how many seconds in front of your vehicle?”

“When making a left turn from a two-way street onto an one-way street with three lanes, you may turn into what lane?”

So, a big thank you to all the readers who flagged silly questions and helped get the DMV’s attention.

Following COVID-19 precautions every other station is made available for administering written test at DMV
If you call the DMV customer service line and end up with a virtual assistant named Miles ... be patient. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

But once again, if you opt for eLearning, you don’t have to worry about the dumb questions. (If you’ve begun the license renewal process in person, you have to flunk two more times before you’re eligible to start over and go with eLearning. This silly rule makes no sense, unless the objective is torture, and should be tossed. Also, it doesn’t seem fair that if you flunk the traditional test three times and switch to eLearning, you’ve got to pay another $45 license renewal fee. Golden State will continue to monitor the situation).

A word of caution:

I hear from quite a few readers who aced the renewal process using eLearning, which is available by computer, tablet or phone, but I also hear from people who run into glitches or have trouble accessing the system.

Gore said that could be a tech issue on the consumer’s end, or it could be that — like the last time I recommended eLearning — the system is overloaded. (Golden State, its partners and affiliates assume no responsibility for the state’s glitches, shortcomings and failures).

She said anyone who has a problem can call DMV’s customer service line at (800) 777-0133, and here’s another word of caution:

I gave it a try, but it did not go well.

I wanted to get a living person on the line but ended up with a “virtual assistant” named Miles, who asked what I was calling about. I told Miles I couldn’t access eLearning (I was pretending, just to see what would happen), and he offered information about accident reporting and vehicle registration. On subsequent calls, Miles texted me links to general license renewal information.

At one point, I must have hit the wrong prompt, because Miles began speaking in Spanish, or at least attempting to. Even with my halfway language skills, I can assure you of this:

Miles has the worst accent in history.

You’d think that in California, of all places, we’d have better Spanish-speaking robots.

I did eventually get to where an automated voice said in English that due to call volume, nobody was available, but a real person would ring me back in two hours. And I did get a callback.

If I sound obsessed with the minutiae of license renewal for people 70 and older, it’s primarily as a public service, but I do have an ulterior motive.

The clock is ticking, and it won’t be long before yours truly is up for renewal.

Wish me luck.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.