Testing facts on learner’s permit

By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / October 14, 2010

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I didn’t want to scare her; it was just a rumor, after all. But when my girlfriend finally took her learner’s permit test this summer — she grew up in New York riding subways and taxis — I was a little nervous she’d fail.

“The test is harder. My brother-in-law’s son is on the honor roll and he flunked it,’’ a local traffic officer had warned me.

All I remember about my permit exam is that it was pretty easy. But that was more than 20 years ago. Maybe today’s tests really are tougher, I began to wonder. Maybe the failure rate has skyrocketed. Maybe Laura would have trouble passing, even as an adult.

But first, some history.

Learner’s permits didn’t exist when Fred Garber, with the Arlex Auto Driving School in Arlington, began teaching driver’s education 49 years ago. Back then you could just start driving the day that you turned 16, as long as you carried a birth certificate to prove your age and you were with an adult, he said.

And when you went for your road test at 16 1/2, the examiner began by asking you five questions out of a book, which you answered orally. If you got three of the five right you were allowed to take the road test. If not, you had to reschedule your test and face another five questions.

In 1964, the Registry of Motor Vehicles did away with the oral questions and created the written permit exam. Like today, you could take the test at 16; it took getting 20 of the 25 questions (80 percent) right to pass.

The test was created to promote safety by making young drivers study the rules, as opposed to briefly memorizing them; it also added a vision test to keep people with poor eyesight from getting behind the wheel.

During the next 40 years the test scarcely changed, with the exception that it was briefly eliminated in the early 1980s to save money amid budget cutbacks at the Registry. Paper tests were done away with three or four years ago, when the agency shifted to touch-screen computers. Today, would-be drivers have 25 minutes to answer 25 multiple-choice questions pulled randomly from a database. Get at least 18 right (72 percent) and you pass.

Are the computerized tests more difficult? Ann Dufresne, a Registry spokeswoman, couldn’t say, as the agency doesn’t have statistics from before the test was computerized.

While there are more questions in the computer database, that doesn’t mean the exam is tougher, she said. In fact, Dufresne noted in an e-mail, “The failure rate has improved over the last two years,’’ going from around 40 percent to 35 percent.

Still, a number of teens are under the impression that it’s tough to pass. I staked out the Watertown RMV office recently, where Nerses Haroutunian and Raffi Grigorian, both 16, had just passed the test. But they weren’t confident going in, as they knew of classmates who had flunked. “He scared me so much, I studied all night,’’ said Grigorian.

As for my girlfriend, well, Laura took all of 14 minutes to complete the exam, getting 20 questions right. She had a couple of zingers about Junior Operator Licenses, and a real obscure one about trolleys, but most of the questions sounded no harder than the ones I’d seen eons ago.

“I think you had to know the driver’s manual for like 75 percent of it. But it was common sense,’’ she said, permit in hand, acting cool.

Other facts: Written tests are available for people with disabilities and for non-English-speaking applicants. It is offered in more than 25 languages.

New Hampshire is the only state that doesn’t issue a learner’s permit, according to the American Automobile Association’s current Digest of Motor Laws. You can begin driving under adult supervision at age 15 1/2.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’