Retaking the Driving Test: 16 Years Later

How well does one drive since he or she got his or her license 16 years ago? Driver Training Services in North Wales was happy to answer that question for editor Tony Di Domizio

I thought I was a pretty good driver. 

Save for a parking ticket or speeding fine here and there, I thought my driving was pretty defensive and certainly precise.

I was wrong, to an extent.

I believe a majority of aged drivers have found his or her own niche in driving his or her vehicle and know the rules of the road well enough to get back and forth from Point A to Point B safely.

In 1996, I got my driver's license on the first try at the PennDOT DMV in Dublin Township. In the past 16 years, I have had a handful of speeding tickets and parking violations - and one major accident, albeit that was when I was 16.

One day, I came across at in Lansdale. 

It made me think: How well do I drive 16 years later?

Robert Gillmer and Michael Mercadante of Driver Training Services in North Wales Borough were more than happy to help me answer that question.

In the end, here's what was revealed.

I scored slightly lower than the average 15-year-old or 16-year-old student on the written exam - 87 percent out of 100. That's not bad. That's a B+ at least.

"That score is consistent," Mercadante said, who is an instructor at DTS. "It's lower than most that take it. Not too shabby."

I never said my driving knowledge was A+. I even studied the Pennsylvania Driver's Manual the night before and also took the practice tests.

Mercadante said the average student takes 30 to 45 minutes to complete the test. I did it in 16 minutes, about half the average.

"We had 14 people in last week," he said. "Twelve out of the 14 got a 90 or better."

See below for the questions I missed.

On a Simulator Systems International Driving Simulator, I scored on average or above average when compared to a 16-year-old male. It was very similar to an arcade driving game like "Cruis'n USA" or "Need for Speed."

The simulation assesses you on recognizing signs and dangerous situations any various courses (rain, snow, highway, city driving, et. al.) in four different attempts.

Each attempt measures, in the case of stop signs, reaction distance, reaction time, stopping distance and braking distance.

My best assessments on a highway course where a stop sign pops up at any random time, all at a controlled speed of 55.6 mph, were: a half-second reaction time, a reaction distance of 39.4 feet, a stopping distance of 137.4 feet and a braking distance of 97.6 feet (at 30.1 feet per second per second).

"The scores are slightly better than the average teenager," Mercadante said. "Reaction time is slightly faster."

When it came to being behind the wheel - a much different story.

It was hard getting rid of the driving methods I accustomed myself to over the past 16 years - or, at least, the driving methods I invented for myself when behind the wheel.

I learned some new things during my driving test.

Gone is the hand-over-hand method of steering.

"Steering like that is a big problem," Mercadante said.

What is taught now is known as push-pull steering: your arms never cross over the airbag in the steering wheel, for obvious cosmetic, and otherwise safety, reasons. 

"That airbag comes out at 300 mph. If your arm is in the way - that's bone on bone collision," Mercadante said. "Your face won't look that way anymore."

Push-pull steering was taught to me this way: Imagine a line going down the middle of the steering wheel. Keep the right hand at 3 o'clock and the left hand at 9 o'clock. The left hand never crosses over that line to the right side, and vice versa. Your arms never cross in front of the airbag.

"You will be in much better control of the car," said Mercadante.

Once I backed out of my parking space, I was on a path of failure. Mercadante saw me fail to check my blind spot as I was backing out.

I hit the roadway, and drove no more than 20 feet to a stop sign before I messed up again. This time, I failed to stop before the stop sign. I'm so used to stopping right at the edge of the intersection, a little past the sign.

I also forget to check my mirrors every five seconds. And Mercadatne was watching my eyes to see where they were looking during the test.

The parallel parking went OK. I didn't do it in three moves. It was more like six.

It seemed my lead foot was getting me in trouble too. Every so often, I was over the limit, in that 10 to 12 mph range where you think you're safe from a ticket. It didn't matter - I had to stay the limit.

"That is technically speeding," Mercadante said. "The 10 to 12 mph range is popular mythology, but you can get a ticket for even one mph over the posted maximum speed limit."  

I also learned something new about braking behind the vehicle in front of me. Now, I give myself distance between us.

The method: Stop so I can see the tires of the car in front of me on the pavement. This way, if I ever get rear-ended, I don't hike up more insurance rates because I hit a car in front of me.

"You avoid a rear-end collision domino effect," Mercadante said.

If you fail a state driving test through PennDOT, you cannot schedule a new exam until the following day, Mercadante said. He said the exam system is currently under-staffed and over-burdened, however, and wait times for a new appointment are generally six weeks.

Driver Training Services doesn't have the authority to give drivers a Pennsylvania driver's license. All it can do is prepare a driver for defensive and precision driving.

"We teach everything you need to know," Mercadante said. "We train 15 to 85. A lot of our students are between 18 and 22. Some are just getting their license for the first time."

DTS cannot test a driver and pass or fail them for a license.

"The state conducts the exams, and what we’re doing is asking the state to expand end-of-skills training testing to include private driving schools in an effort to help alleviate congestion at testing facilities statewide," he said.

For a Class C license - the license given to Pennsylvania drivers of four-axle passenger vehicles - one must be tested through PennDOT or end-of-skills testing. The latter is only offered in public schools.

DTS also trains and tests for commercial, hazmat, bus driver's licenses. There is also van training and testing and forklift training and testing too.

"If we can train and test school bus drivers, then why not train and test teen students?" Mercadante said. "If we can train people to get nuclear waste from one place to another, then why can't we test teen students?"

DTS is lobbying the state to allow end-of-skills testing by private schools. End-of-skills, Mercandante said, is typically the last hour of a six-hour training package, on average between eight and 18 hours.

Mercadante said teen students train for at least six hours behind the wheel, and many continue training for up to 20 hours. DTS has had two students they trained for the entire 65 hours as required by state law.

The company offers the state-required 30-hour classroom curriculum and the six hours behind the wheel. For the summer classroom program, students take four classes at eight hours per class. During the school year, DTS runs the class as six consecutive Saturdays, for five hours a day.

However, driver's education is not mandatory in Pennsylvania. It is mandatory, for example, in New Jersey, Ohio and Nevada.

There is a demand, Mercadante said, from foreign nationals to learn how to drive in the state. 

DTS also consults with several companies for assessments on their drivers.

Driver Training Services works with drivers with behavioral problems, autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities.

"Autism can affect certain scores and brake and reaction time," Mercadante said. "There are certain things to look for and control before they happen."

He said in most cases, students with autism or learning disabilities can be safer drivers than him or I.

"They miss very little. They can be very cautious drivers and tend never to speed," Mercadante said. "They can be overly gratuitous to yield the right-of-way to other people."

However, there are certain concerns with those drivers with behavioral issues. For instance, depth perception when driving can be a challenge for some youths. DTS makes sure to work with doctors and neurologists so the students can pass training behind the wheel.

Driver Training Services owner Gillmer said his company offers a Driver Competency Assessment. This is a procedure where a driver is evaluated on his or her ability to recognize certain circumstances along a 45-minute predetermined course. Each one is assessed on things like speed and how to handle an interesection.

Drivers can be scored on the same route as they see the same decision-making circumstances, or they can be graded on distractors along the course, such as finding a route on a piece of paper or finding a specific address while driving.

"There's a level of complexity to scoring points," Gillmer said. "You see how drivers handle decision making, scored on a scale of one to 10. The average driver is about a five."

The competency assessment is used for novice and senior drivers, and is usually requested by employers to see if their people are safe drivers or as a qualifier to hire a person for a job.

Mercandante lauded me for retaking my test again. He wished more people did such a thing.

"Driving is like martial arts training: you can learn the basics in a relatively short time, but it takes a lifetime of serious study, attention and discipline to master it to the fullest potential. I believe everybody should treat driving like martial arts," he said. "You are never done learning or perfecting a craft."

Furthermore, the state doesn't require drivers to be educated on new driving mandates like the Steer Clear Law or the Safe Passing Law that deals with bicyclists.

He said that asking yourself, "How can I be a better driver?" is a great question.

"Every adult should ask themselves that," Mercadante said. "The state requires you to renew your license every four years. It does not require you renew your skills or knowledge."

Here are the questions I missed on the test. Can you answer them correctly? Answers at the bottom:

Hydroplaning is usually caused by:

A. Excessive stops
B. Sudden stops
C. Sudden turns
D. Excessive speed

When making a right turn on a green light, you must:

A. Maintain normal driving speed
B. Stop and look for oncoming traffic
C. Yield for pedestrians
D. Increase your normal driving speed

When traveling behind a motorcycle, you must:

A. Allow a following distance of at least 2 car lengths
B. Allow at least two seconds of following distance
C. Allow at least 4 seconds of following distance
D. Allow a following distance of at least 4 motorcycle lengths

Who must yield when a driver is turning and a pedestrian is crossing without a traffic light?

A. Whoever started first
B. The driver
C. Whoever is the slowest
D. The pedestrian

When a truck driver behind you wants to pass your vehicle, your speed should:

A. Remain steady or decrease
B. Change lanes
C. Change
D. Increase

Before backing up you should:

A. Rely on your mirrors to see if it is clear to proceed
B. Flash your lights
C. Open your door to see if it is clear to proceed
D. Turn your head and look through the rear window

You may use your headlights when other vehicles are not visible from:

A. 1000 feet away
B. 1500 feet away
C. 1800 feet away
D. 1200 feet away

If a vehicle using high beams comes toward you, you should look towards __ of the road:

A. Either side
B. The center
C. The right side
D. The left side

You may honk your horn when you:

A. Have to stop quickly
B. Are passing another car
C. Have lost control of your car
D. Are passing a bicyclist

For an average person, how many minutes does the body need to process the alcohol in one drink?

A. 15
B. 60
C. 90
D. 30

On two-lane, two way streets or highways, you should start left turns:

A. Close to the center line
B. Close to the outside line
C. In the center of the lane
D. Anywhere in the lane

To pass a slower moving vehicle on a two-lane road you must:

A. Not cross the center line
B. Flash your lights for incoming traffic
C. Use your shoulder
D. Use that lane that belongs to oncoming traffic

When no signs, signals, or police tell  you what to do at an intersection, the law states that:

A. Drivers on the right must yield to drivers on the left
B. There are no laws stating who must yield
C. Drivers going straight must yield to drivers turning left at the intersection
D. Drivers turning left must yield to drivers going straight through an intersection. 

D, C, C, B, A, D, A, C, D, B, A, D, D

Dot July 18, 2012 at 04:30 AM
Kathy, I am so sorry for your loss. My heart aches for you. I understand what you mean about some folks who drive who absolutely should not be doing so. At the risk of being labeled an ageist, I believe that seniors over a certain age should be retested. I think maybe a good place for assessing folks for that would be in a doctor's office. I don't think docs think about this aspect. Even if they do, I think they'd hesitate to bring it up for fear of being seen as the ogre. I don't think much reporting is being done to the DMV.
Stephen Eickhoff July 20, 2012 at 07:47 PM
I see that driver's exams are still ridiculously ambiguous. "Change" is a slightly more vague way to say "steady or decrease". And turning your head to look through the rear window is ridiculous advice when you're driving a vehicle like a truck with no rear window or one that is obstructed. I have this wonderful piece of technology created in the 1920s called a "rear view mirror" that shows the entire rear window view, regardless.
Stephen Eickhoff July 20, 2012 at 07:54 PM
What it would take to have everyone retake their road test every few years would be a huge amount of money and a scientific study to determine whether it would help. That's what would keep me from approving it-- not the fear of failing. Not to discount your loss, but the millions of dollars and thousands of hours of time would not be worth it if the proverbial "one life was saved".
linda spreeman July 21, 2012 at 11:28 PM
To assume that someone passed their test when they were 16 (give or take) and to further assume that same person has all his/her faculties intact to drive decades later is ridiculous. Cars require annual extensive testing to determine if they are safe to be on the road. Shouldn't the DRIVERS be subjected to a similar scenario at least, say, once a decade? <Linda Spreeman, King of Prussia>
Dot July 22, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Hi, Linda. May be true. I believe that a person's record would be a strong indication for the need or retesting. Accidents? Tickets? I agree with Stephen, though. This would be a massive undertaking that probably would not be feasible.


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