Wild ride

After 15 years of administering drivers tests, Linda McBride still
never knows what to expect from the person behind the wheel
Thursday, February 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:46 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Driving into oncoming traffic, jumping curbs and cutting off other motorists. It sounds like a chase scene from an action movie, but for Linda McBride, it’s sometimes just an ordinary day at the driver examination station.

For 15 years, McBride, driver examiner No. 3 for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, has administered road tests. For five years before that she conducted written driving tests as well as vision tests.

By now, one might think the job was old hat for McBride. But McBride said she never knows what to expect from her job.

“Every day is a new experience,” she said. “Drivers can be unpredictable.”

That day-to-day difference can be seen in the variety of cars brought to the driver examination station on Buttonwood Drive. Drivers provide their own vehicles for the road test.

“We’ve had Mercedes, Jags, Porsches and Corvettes,” McBride said, but the luxury cars often don’t appear.

McBride has turned away some of the dirty and poorly equipped vehicles.

“There was one car that didn’t even have an intact floorboard,” she said. “And there are always the cars with heaters that don’t work in the winter and air conditioners that don’t work in the summer.”

The most unusual of cars, McBride remembers, was the “Calvin Car,” dubbed that because of a Calvin and Hobbes sticker on the back window.

“It clanged, and it banged, and smoke was rolling out of it,” McBride said.

The car was “multicolored,” McBride recalls, spray painted on many different occasions.

“You could see it coming from a mile away,” she said.

For two or three years, McBride said, she saw the car passed down among a group of international students from MU.

“Three or four (students) would come in at the same time for their test and just pass the car along,” she said.

Whether it is the Calvin Car or a Corvette, the road test is the same. The driver starts the engine, checks to make sure that all the lights are working, locates all the controls and then proceeds for about 30 minutes along a three-mile course that tests everyday driving.

“Drivers are either nervous or cocky,” McBride said. “You can usually tell what sort of driver they are as soon as you back out of the parking lot.”

The driver’s attitude usually gives her an idea of how the test will go, she said.

Any traffic violation or dangerous action ends the test. Such violations or actions include not coming to a complete stop at a red light before turning right, speeding, pulling out in front of another car or cutting another car off during a lane change.

“At that point, the test stops,” McBride said. “We quit grading, reroute the driver and head back.”

Minus any major mishaps, a driver must score 70 out of 100 points on the road test. McBride finds that the most common point deductions come from not using turn signals, not checking traffic properly and poor parallel parking.

Good news for drivers: Parallel parking only counts for six points on the road test.

More good news: A driver can take the road test three times (but after a third try, the driver must receive special permission from the director of revenue for each additional attempt).

McBride said she meets a variety of people taking road tests for a variety of reasons. There are those drivers who have had their licenses revoked or suspended for drunken driving or a large point accumulation from moving traffic violations. There are cited cases when an older driver is required to renew the license either by the order of a judge or because of a complaint by someone who has reported the individual’s poor driving.

There are those drivers who forget to renew their license within 6 months of its expiration and are then required to take the written and road tests. Finally, there are the new drivers.

About 3 p.m., after local schools have let out, McBride’s office really starts to bustle and her job gets more exciting.

“There’s a lot of peer pressure for kids to get their license right on their 16th birthday,” McBride said. “They want to go back to school the next day and show off their license.”

A week ago today, the office was indeed packed with birthday boys and girls eager for their learning permits or driver’s licenses. Savannah Clemons, a sophomore at Hickman High School, stopped off to pick up her license before celebrating her 16th birthday with her family at a restaurant in Hallsburg.

“She got her permit on her 15th birthday and, of course, she wanted to get her license today,” Georgia Clemons, Savannah’s mother, said. “There was no stopping her.”

As Georgia waited nervously for Savannah to return from her road test, she spoke words of assurance. “This one I can trust,” she said. “She has a good head on her shoulders.”

McBride said it’s often the case that the parents are more nervous than their children.

To her mother’s relief, Savannah returned to the office with a smile on her face.

“I totally bombed the parallel parking —I didn’t even get close enough to bump the curb,” she said. “But I got a 92 percent.”

Chris Rice, a sophomore at Rock Bridge High School who had celebrated his 16th birthday several days earlier, was also in for his driver’s license. Diane Rice, Chris’s mother, has gone through this already with her other sons.

“This is my third in the past three years,” she said. “I knew a lot more of what to expect this time.”

The Rices had practiced driving with Chris on several occasions near the testing center. “We wanted him to be familiar with the area,” Diane said. “He’s used to driving on our side of town.”

At least on the surface Diane seemed calm.

“He’s my perfectionist,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”

And indeed he was. Chris also passed the road test and was off to take his driver’s license picture next door at the Department of Revenue.

Not all new drivers are as successful as Savannah and Chris.

“We knew a kid whose horn wouldn’t work,” Diane said. “The test was over right then and there.”

McBride said young drivers’ troubles most often results from the bad habits their parents teach them.

“A lot of times, they don’t pass the first road test because of the bad habits passed on to them by their parents,” she said. “But it doesn’t hurt to fail the first test, because then you’re forced to correct those mistakes and bad habits.”

Though McBride had never been involved in an accident during a road test, she has had applicants cause accidents.

“I have had to pull the emergency brake or grab the steering wheel,” she said. “It helps that the emergency brake is now usually between the two front seats.”

There was a driver who, when he first started the car, put the car in first instead of reverse. He then jumped the parking lot curb in front of him and took out a tree. McBride also had a young driver hit a parked car as they were pulling into a parking spot next to it at the end of the road test. She also recalls another young driver who drove into oncoming traffic on Providence Road.

“We always have to be on our toes,” McBride said.

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