There’s something terrifying about the California driver’s license knowledge test.
I recently moved from New Jersey to California, which meant that I had to get a new driver’s license. California waives the road test if you have an out-of-state license, so this meant that I only had to take the knowledge test.
I went about this test the same way I did for the New Jersey one many years prior: I read through the handbook and took notes for every fact that seemed vaguely relevant, then took a few online practice tests. I was maximally confident that I would pass when walking into the DMV. But this test was different. Halfway through it, I was sweating out of every pore in my body. It was a terrifying experience.
I wrote this piece to analyze the design of each of the tests, in order to try to understand what made this experience so unique.
In NJ, the exam is 50 questions, and you have to get 40 questions correct. Each question is 4-option multiple choice. The test will stop immediately once you get 40 questions right or 11 questions wrong, and then you can proceed to wait in the next line.
What’s more interesting is the actual structure of the testing terminals at the DMV. While you are taking the exam, you’ll see in the upper left corner the number of questions you’ve got right, the number of questions you’ve got wrong, the remaining number of questions, and the remaining number you need to get right. Each question is numbered, and once you give your response to a question, it’ll tell you whether it was right or wrong, and then direct you to the next question.
The design philosophy here is one of transparency and immediate feedback. It tells you when you’ve made a mistake and when you’ve done well. Because you always know how you’re doing, there are no surprises. This is even more convenient if you know the material, since the exam constantly reassures you that you’re almost guaranteed to pass. Taking a math exam, you always have to worry that you made some minor error somewhere, or that you made a bunch of minor errors everywhere, and that they might all cascade and fail you the test even though you know you know the material. But this is hardly a worry when you are expressly told every step of the way that you are, in fact, not making minor errors.
As a result, the NJ exam is methodical — almost as methodical as filling out forms and waiting in line at the DMV. In fact, you might as well consider it just another form to fill out; little does it matter whether you’re checking your answers or checking that you spelled your name correctly.
In California, the exam is 46 questions, and you have to get 38 correct. Each question is a 3-option multiple choice. Again, the test stops immediately once you get 38 right or 9 wrong.
Already we can see that something is strange about the California exam. What kind of benchmark is 38/46? We can contextualize this strangeness by looking at, again, the structure of the testing terminals at the DMV.
Once you start the exam, the screen will show you the current question and the answer options. That’s it. It doesn’t tell you how many questions you’ve answered correctly or incorrectly. And, of course, it doesn’t tell you once you’ve submitted an answer whether it was right or wrong.
There is already something stressful in this design. You must toss your answers into the abyss, one by one, and the abyss will not look back at you until you are finished. Lacking immediate feedback is stressful enough during academic exams, but even those allow you to go back and check everything over before you finally present your paper to the Xerox box on the desk at the front of the room.
This would be only a little stressful if it weren’t for the fact that, again, the test will stop immediately when you are finished. In the NJ exam, when you have 39 questions correct, you know perfectly well that the test might stop on the next one. But because in California you don’t know how well you’re doing at any point in time, taking the exam is more like checking your mail every day waiting to hear back from the only job interview you managed to get your hands on — the decisive moment always strikes like a flash of lightning.
You cannot shut your ears to the thunder or your eyes to the lightning — so rapid are they.
It may seem that I’m exaggerating a bit here — after all, even if you’re doing badly, chances are that you won’t finish until at least 30 questions in, and as the question number goes above 38, you’d have a better idea of how you’re doing. It’s true that in an exam which stops once you’ve conclusively passed or failed, the question number can be a proxy for the more detailed information provided on the NJ exam terminal. This lays the way for the most terrifying aspect of the California exam: there are no question numbers. At any point in the test, you know neither how many questions you’ve answered, nor how many questions are left.
Taking the California exam is, as a result, like being lost in a dense forest. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know how far the exit is, and you don’t know how many hours you’ve been wandering around. But you do know that at any moment, you might be eaten alive by one of the growling predators stalking the undergrowth — or you might stumble out back into civilization.
Don’t be nervous. DMV wants you to pass your test. Good Luck!
Some Unnecessary Leaps of Logic
We can (but probably shouldn’t) try to link these driving knowledge exam design philosophies to economic and social structures. The three major technological industries of New Jersey are finance, pharma, and telecom. What commonly characterizes all three is the amount of stability necessary to designing their systems: financial systems must be able to withstand billions of dollars in millions of transactions every day (or rich people will be angry); telecom must be able to withstand the entire country’s intercommunication without any downtime (or — as actually happened during a relative’s tenure at AT&T — you will get angry calls from the White House); pharmaceutical systems must be able to withstand unpredictable use and wear (or people will literally die as a result). This desire for stability and consistency is on play in the driver’s exam: there are no surprises, only the perfunctory methodology of “business as usual”.
Though the size of the technology industry in California is often overstated, we can look to it to provide a different philosophy. We might refer to The Zucc’s famous proclamation “Move fast and break things”, which has been an operating slogan for Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix (which would DDOS its own live systems for stress testing), and every one of the thousands of VC-hungry startups coming out of the Bay or LA. Under this philosophy, programming involves cobbling together systems that we hope will work, and worrying about bugs on an as-they-come basis. This informs the driver’s exam in terms of blindness: at any point, we may have some grasp on how well things or written or where errors might be, but the system isn’t strongly formalized. The economic viability of startups likewise experiences blindness: whereas NJ’s tech industries are always doing “well enough”, startups may randomly crash and burn — or turn into unicorns — often with little prior warning. In essence, California’s myriad of startups are all taking a driver’s exam.
I am still waiting for my new license to arrive in the mail — apparently California does not print your new license on-the-spot like New Jersey (but this might actually be a product of the new federal ID laws). If it were not for my certainty that they will definitely send me a license and not a rejection letter, I would also call this an instance of blindness.
Thanks for reading this piece, which is the first (and probably last for a while) I’ve written with a reasonable length.