In 1972 my California driver’s license expired after decades of coverage. I had moved to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to prepare my Ph.D. thesis for publication. I needed to renew my license to commute to the library, shop in the markets, and tour Detroit. Just in the nick of time before the expiration, I renewed my license at the Ann Arbor DMV.
I easily clinched the license knowledge exam. Then I waited in line for the driver’s exam. A short chubby man directed me to drive my car to the curb to let him climb in. I was driving a very old and questionably safe station wagon with dents, smeared windows, and tattered seats. He squeezed into the seat leaning uncomfortably over his exam booklet.
He ordered me to turn on to a one-way street, to parallel park, and to stop suddenly. I jammed on the brakes nearly shoving him into the windshield. When he told me to drive back to the office, I asked him if I had passed. “100%,” he replied. So, I took a chance; I put my arm across the back of the seat and around his shoulder. He had a fit. Yelling at me. Warning me I could fail the test. Then he calmed down to ask me why I had done this stupid thing.
“Well, I think this test is stupid. I am supposed to have both hands on the wheel. Yet do you think that I ever have had my hands on the wheel for very long when I have a wife, two children, a dog with whom I talk, pass treats, point out the window at the scenery, or the red tail hawks on the telephone poles? A realistic test would require me to behave in a real-life situation. Not some ridiculously sterile procedure.”
He checked his scorecard. I needed 70 points to pass. He had taken off 25 for my “failure” to drive carefully. With a sneer, he said, “Luckily you passed. I never want to see you again!”
In Taiwan and Japan, once I showed the DMV officials my USA driver’s license and paid my fee, I only needed to pass one test. It was a test of my vision, my response to stop signals, and my recognition of colors.
In Taiwan, I joined a line in front of a machine that looked like a wheel of fortune. The examiner operated the wheel to spin and stop quickly. The wheel was decorated with lines of colors. As soon as the wheel stopped, the applicant had to yell out the color. Then it spun and twirled rapidly again, only to stop on another color. I think this was a test for responding to changing traffic lights. Fortunately, my Chinese language skills were excellent. I visually recognized the color and its Chinese name.
The Japanese had a similar test. As applicants stood in a line, an examiner quickly walked past them, spinning a sign with different colors. As he passed each person, they were to call out the colors on the signs. With less assurance, I knew the colors. I was photographed and given a license.
For me, getting a license was both a challenge and a rush.