We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
According to the annual GMAC Insurance National Driver’s Test, D.C. drivers are just about the biggest fucking idiots in the entire country. Only Rhode Island drivers performed worse on a 20-question exam designed to measure “knowledge of traffic laws and safety as well as general driving habits.”
Are we just stupid? Or is the D.C. driver’s test setting us up for failure?
Procrastinators prone to letting their licenses expire, newcomers to the United States, and teens on the verge of their 16th birthdays should pay close attention: The city driving test will warp your brain. The act of studying will fill your head up with absurd regulations you never knew existed. If your brain is already crowded, this may cause more critical information—such as what makes the road slippery, one of the most-missed GMAC questions—to be buried or deleted.
Do not fear—if you can memorize the readily available study guide or copy down the answers on a cheat sheet, you will pass the test and get your license. You will leave happy, but confused. And if you attempt to take another test—one, such as the GMAC, designed to test knowledge relevant to reality—you might just fail.
Consider the following:
1. If Oprah and Roseanne could not comfortably walk arm-in-arm through the space between your car and the one parked next to you, you are parked illegally.
Based on your experience parking in this tightly packed city, you might assume that a foot or two would be enough distance between cars. This would translate into an incorrect answer on the D.C. driver’s test. Even in crowded areas, there should be a minimum 3-foot gap between all parked vehicles.
“It’s a realistic rule,” says Mary Myers, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, the city agency that oversees parking, adding, “They are going to know it because it’s in the study guide.”
2. If Jason Campbell could throw a Hail Mary pass from your car and hit a fire truck 80 yards ahead, you’re following way too closely.
If we lived in a perfect world, as described by the DMV driver’s test, no one would ever be able to see the flashing lights of a fire truck. That is because drivers are required to leave 500 feet—the equivalent of more than one-and-a-half football fields—between their cars and a vehicle on an emergency run.
Says instructor Carrie Dicks of Dicks Driving School, “That’s not logical.”
But it’s to be taken seriously. According to Janis Hazel, spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, a fine can be issued if you trail the truck too closely; following merely one gridiron behind could cost you $50. Why such a distance? Hazel says this has something vague to do with turning radii, sight lines, and safety.
3. You need to pick up some condoms. Parking on the perfectly level ground of the CVS parking lot, you neglect to engage the emergency brake. You are parked illegally.
There are those who always use their emergency brakes, and there are those who tend to put their faith in the “park” position of their automatic transmissions. If you are the first type of person, you have nothing to fear from the DMV, but if you are the second, pay close attention: According to the test, whenever, wherever, however you park, you “must” pull up your emergency brake.
Myers says the rule dates to the era before catalytic converters (which have been standard equipment since the ’70s). “Now vehicles are better designed,” she says, so they are “not as likely to go rolling down a hill or into another car.”
So why don’t they make the question more specific or alter the regulation? “I don’t know, but it’s there for a reason,” says Myers.
4. If you pull front-end-first into a space in a downtown parking garage, you are defying DMV doctrine.
Consider the following question taken directly from the exam:
You want to park in a space where there is room for only one car. You should:
a. Pull slowly into the parking space
b. Back carefully into the parking space
c. Open the door and observe traffic before trying to park.
The correct answer is (b). Not to be a technicality whore, but nowhere in the question or answer does it specify a curbside parking space. Thus the test implies that even if you are in a totally empty parking lot, if the lines allot room for just one car—and when have you ever seen a parking space designed for two or more cars?—you must back in. The question thereby suggests that pulling nose-first into a space—anywhere in the District—is illicit.
5. If your eyes were to land on a bumper sticker on the car in front of you, and then remain there as you waited for the light to turn green, you are not following a DMV dictum.
Midway through my eight-minute road test, the examiner turned and asked, “How far should you be looking ahead of you at all times when driving in the District of Columbia?”
I was not prepared for such a question. “As far as I can see,” went my response.
“If you don’t know the answer, just say so,” he said.
Having faithfully memorized the regulations outlined in the written test, I began to list them off, hoping one would qualify as an answer. “There should be three car lengths between me and the car ahead of me and 500 feet between me and a moving fire engine, and I don’t think I can see farther than that, so my final answer is 500 feet.”
“Wrong,” said the examiner. “You should be looking one block ahead of you at all times.”
Let me back up: Because I let my license expire for more than 180 days, I was forced to retake not only the written exam but also the road test—and the obscure queries don’t end when you have passed the written test. So be prepared for ridiculously specific questions pulled out of examiners’ asses and asked in a deadly serious tone.
It also didn’t help that my examiner and I got off to a bad start. My introduction—“I had a California license, but I let it expire. I feel like I’m 16 again!”—was met with a grunt and a glance, which seemed to say, “So, Hippie Girl, you think you are too good for this test? I’ll show you.”
And he did.
Apparently, though, the one-block-ahead rule is not exactly common knowledge. Noel Gunter, who’s been a driving instructor in D.C. for more than 20 years, says he’s never heard of such a rule and suggests the instructor invented the question.
“Some blocks are longer than others,” he points out.
Even DMV Director Anne Witt says she has never heard of such a rule. “It could have been an examination error,” she says. “It may have been the instructor’s attempt to do some informal educating; whether proper or not, I don’t know.”