My neighbor said her 98-year-old father was beside himself recently. He told her he had failed his driver's test. He'd been a Teamster, for heaven's sake -- he drove for a living without an accident -- and now some DMV goon decided his driving was unsafe.

"I hear the same story on a daily basis," said John Locher. "A senior will say, 'I'm a safe driver. I drove all over Europe in World War II. I've driven all over the country and haven't had a ticket my entire life.'"

Locher is the DMV's chief senior driver ombudsman -- the guy whose job is to listen to senior drivers' concerns. He said driving test failure is the No. 1 topic on his complaint hit parade.

The Tracy DMV office will soon be moving to a new, less cramped location. Here, a shot of the DMV taken Friday, November 3, 2006.(Gina Halferty/Tri-Valley
The Tracy DMV office will soon be moving to a new, less cramped location. Here, a shot of the DMV taken Friday, November 3, 2006. (Gina Halferty/Tri-Valley Herald)

It's not that California has it in for older drivers. Fact is, there's only one age-related requirement. Beginning at age 70, applicants must pass written and visions test for license renewal. That's it.

Driving exams are required when medical impairment, physical limitations or driving history warrant them, at any age. For obvious reasons, seniors are more likely candidates. Macular degeneration is why the 98-year-old was flagged.

"Anybody who's an experienced driver expects to pass the test," Locher said. "The reason that a senior, despite all his years of experience and common sense, doesn't pass and a 16-year-old with no experience does usually is the preparation they put into it.


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"The 16-year-old goes to driver's ed and takes driving lessons. Does that teach him common sense and experience? No, but it teaches him how to pass the test. Too many seniors go in with the attitude that I've been driving for 60 years and I know how to drive."

What seniors need to understand, Locher said, is that examiners work off a checklist. Were lane changes safe? Did the car come to a complete stop at stop signs? Did the driver know when to yield? Did he scan all traffic before turning? Was the car driven at the proper speed?

"One thing that typically causes seniors to fail is driving too cautiously," Locher said. "Driving 10 miles an hour or more under the speed limit is a critical driving error, and it's an automatic drive-test failure."

Other critical errors include hitting an object or the curb, disobeying traffic signals, the need for examiner intervention and failing to yield to emergency vehicles. But it's not just the big mistakes that matter. Sometimes it's bad habits ingrained over the years -- rounding corners too widely, belated use of turn indicators.

"They don't necessarily mean you're an unsafe driver," he said, "but they may prevent you from passing the test."

No one in his golden years puts a driving test on his bucket list. But the exam doesn't have to be a nerve-racking experience. Locher advises seniors to drive the car with which they are most familiar and tour the neighborhood where the test will be given a week in advance. Are there railroad crossings? A school zone? A crosswalk? No right turns on red?

"Being familiar with the traffic situations in that area will give you a better realization of what's going on."

He said 2.5 percent of drivers 75 and older will be involved in a traffic collision this year -- much fewer than 13.3 percent of drivers aged 16-20 who will. Age doesn't make you a bad driver, just bad at taking tests.

Speaking of which, my neighbor's dad passed the second time around. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.