Class A License
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If you haven't heard, I purchased a used fishing boat this summer.  Details are included under the July 13th entry on the home page.  The following story describes my endeavors with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

We already pull a 5th wheel trailer and I knew I couldn't also pull a boat behind that with a normal drivers license.  I needed a Class A.  I went to the DMV web site and since I wasn't going to haul goods or passengers for money, a Non-Commercial Class A license seemed to be what I needed.  No problem.  The requirements for such a license aren't that strict, a simple health questionnaire and a short written test.  Well when I got to the DMV, I was informed that to pull "doubles", I needed a regular Commercial Class A license and the requirements for such were several written tests, a complete physical now and every two years thereafter, and a actual driving test.  If interested, you can view the actual requirements in the 139 page Commercial Driver Handbook.

I studied the book for an hour or so and then took the written tests.  I failed two of the four but one is allowed to take the tests three times.  So I left, got some lunch, and spent an additional 3 hours studying.  Then I went back and took the tests again.  Hooray, this time I passed.

I had my physical the following week which was no big deal.  Just an excuse for the doctor to get a hundred dollars out of me because "my insurance doesn't cover this type of physical".  OK, pay the bill and move on.

Now all I need to do is complete the drive test.  I've been driving our current trailer for 7 years, had a shorter one for 2 years before that, and towed a tent trailer for 2 years before that.  So in total, I've been towing for 11 accident free years (well there was that one time I barely clipped the taillight of a parked car when negotiating a tight turn in a grocery store parking lot).  So how hard could the driving test be?

It was June 21st.  I called for an appointment but the first available wasn't until July 20th.  I couldn't make that one because the truck is scheduled to be in the shop July 19th - 21st. 

"What do you have after that?"

"I'm sorry, our system only goes 30 days in advance.  You'll have to call back next week."

On Friday, June 23rd I started thinking about this.  OK, the earliest I can get an appointment is going to be July 24th.  This doesn't give me any time to retest if I fail as we're leaving somewhere around July 31st.  Now what?  Hey, maybe I can get an appointment in Stockton or Yuba City? 

I called that afternoon.  I was slightly scolded by the guy on the other end of the phone, and told that "those appointments go by 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning but I'll check".  Well luck was with me as there had been a cancellation and an appointment was available on Monday, July 3rd at 12:30 pm in Stockton.

I also called the following Monday, June 26th, and landed a backup appointment for Monday, July 24th at 9:30 am.  Good insurance.

I had to beg and plead with my boss to get Monday off as so many other staff had already taken it to have a long holiday weekend so I arrived in Stockton at 11:30 am expecting to check-in and then have plenty of time to review the Handbook and just relax before taking the test.  Well when I went to the counter to check-in, I was not on their list.  After more pleading and begging and they agreed to work me in.  Apparently this wasn't the first time this had happened.  So much for my relax time.

Phase 1 of the drive test is a pre-trip inspection.  After the examiner verified my turn signals, brake lights, and horn were all functioning, I was instructed to perform a pre-trip inspection.  I was allowed 17 errors.  To make a long story short, I had 35 errors.

Now you might be wondering what the hell could there possibly be to inspect?  I was too.  I had read the instructions beginning on page 115 of the handbook but never realized the detail that was inspected.  For example, we had just checked the turn signals (left and right), hazard lights, brake lights, and horn.  Why would I need to check it again?  Minus twelve right there. 4 for the rear of the trailer, 4 for the rear of the truck, 3 for the front of the truck, and 1 for the horn.  I would have thought the fact that I was able to use the driver's door proved it was functioning.  Nope, I didn't mention that I specifically checked it (nor did closing the door verify that the mirror was securely attached).  Minus 2 more for those.  The handbook mentioned checking the belts for the water pump, alternator, power steering, and fan.  I have one long belt that turns all of these items which I checked.  However I failed to mention it turned the water pump, fan, alternator, and power steering.  Minus 4 more.  There's a whole host of items ranging from steering linkage, frame cracks, exhaust systems, brake pads, springs shackles, mounting bolts, and on and on.  But the one thing that amused me the most is that in the middle of July in 100 plus degree heat, I failed to check my heater and defroster.

Because I failed the pre-trip inspection, the exam was over.  No actual driving.  I needed to schedule a retest. However luck was on my side again as there was an appointment in West Sacramento on Friday, July 7th at 12:30 pm.

Now I had my score sheet, listing every requirement for the pre-trip inspection and where my mistakes were made.  I considered this the "key to the castle" and created a check list for my next exam.  I took the allowed check list on page 125 and with the help of some computer editing tools, created one that looked very similar but contained the exact answers for which they were looking.  I also studied in case I had to do it without the checklist for some reason.

So on Friday I took my test in West Sacramento.  As you might expect, I missed 0 on the pre-trip inspection.  Good.  This should have been the hardest part to pass because it's new.  But like I said, I've been towing this rig for 7 years and am very confident in my abilities to maneuver it through any reasonable situation.

Phase 2 of the driving test is "Basic Skills" which consists of four tasks described beginning on page 127.  Forward Stop/Straight Line Backing,  Alley Dock (similar to backing into a camping space), Parallel Park (could be tough as this isn't something I normally do with the trailer), and Right Turn.  So other than the parallel park, these should be easy.  You're allowed 10 marks or less to pass this part of the exam.  You get marks for pulling up, encroachment (going beyond a boundary), and clearance (not getting close enough to an object). 

The forward stop was first and I had to stop the truck so the front bumper was within 2 feet of a line without going over.  No problem. 

Next, I had to pull forward down this 12 foot wide (the truck and trailer are about 8 1/2 feet wide so it's tight) and 100 foot long lane marked with cones.  Now back up in a straight line.  Minus 2 there.  One for going over a line and another for pulling up to straighten out.

Next came the right turn.  Make a right hand turn where the rear wheel of the trailer is within 1 foot of this cone.  I missed it by a mile.  Another ding.

Now the alley dock.  12 feet wide, 20 feet long.  Start at a roughly 90 degree angle and back into this "alley", stopping with the rear of the trailer within two feet of the end.  Well after 8 marks (she was being generous) and not really completing the exercise, the examiner waived me off and we proceeded to the parallel parking.  And I thought this would be easy!

Parallel parking is 12 feet with and 10 feet longer than the trailer.  It's parallel parking as you know it but only for the trailer (obviously).  Well I had about given up, but managed to get it parked with only 3 more generous marks.

So I was only allowed 10 but got 18.  Failed again!  Now I'm getting down to the wire as I only am allowed three chances to pass before I have to start the whole process over again.  And yet again, I still haven't driven on the road.

There were no available appointments on that Friday and I was really beginning to doubt my abilities.  Driving on that course was way different than driving on the road.  In some ways, there was too much room.  I am used to rocks, trees, bushes, cars, light posts, center dividers, etc when maneuvering the trailer.  This was just a big open lot full of cones and my whole perspective was off.  It reminded me of when I played basketball in high school.  In high school gyms, the baskets are mounted very near the end walls, the ceilings aren't super high, and there's a set of bleachers between the court and the side walls.  That's what we were used to.  Then one day we played in a tournament held at Arco Arena.  Everybody from every high school had difficulty making shots because now the basket is just a small hoop of wire hanging in the middle of a huge space.  Totally different perspective from what we were used to.  I took the trailer back to storage and held on to the fact that I still had an appointment on July 24th.

Although I was growing sick of the whole thing, I'm too stubborn to give up.  I called on Monday, July 10 and the spirits were shining on me again.  I got an appointment for Wednesday, July 12 at (you guessed it) 12:30 pm.  Not wanting to fail again, I called my father and asked him if he would help me practice.  I needed to find a large open lot and set up some obstacles to get the perspective I needed.  He agreed to work with me on Tuesday night after I got off work.

I "borrowed" some cones from various local construction areas in my neighborhood my Dad and I went to a local high school to practice.  We were able to setup in an area where there were outdoor basketball courts.  It was not as big and open as the exam site but still helped.  After 3 or 4 attempts at each exercise, I was confident enough and ready to test again the following morning.

So it's Wednesday morning and it was my last chance.  Is the third time going to be the charm?  I spent the morning at home tinkering with my computers and trying not to think about the upcoming test.  Finally it was 11:30 am so I headed out to West Sacramento and arrived about 20 minutes prior to my scheduled exam.  After checking in, I waited outside on one of the benches provided for that purpose.

Nathan introduced himself as my examiner.  Being as I passed the pre-trip inspection last time, we started again with the basic skills.  I had no problems with the forward stop and straight line backing.  On the right-hand turn around the cone, I couldn't have been any closer without hitting it.  Good!  Although I won't know my score until the end of the exam, the first two are out of the way and things are looking good.

Now the alley dock.  Stay calm and accept the fact that you're going to have to pull up.  Just make the pull-ups count and don't go over the lines, adding to the marks.  I begin and see the trailer turning too soon.  OK, time for the first pull-up.  Damn it!  After pulling up and starting back again, the trailer still isn't going to make it.  Plus now I'm sure I've "encroached" the boundaries on the passenger side which I can not see.  Breath and pull up again.  This time things are looking better.  Not perfect but better.  I finally negotiate the trailer into the 20' x 12' "dock and stop, hoping the rear bumper of the trailer is within the 2 ft. boundary.  I know I've gotten at least three marks for pulling up and surely at least one or two for encroachment.  I don't really know about the 2 ft. clearance.

Finally, the parallel park.  After the alley dock, I'm sure I don't have that many available marks and I'm going to have to pull-up at least once or twice.  Better hit this one good.  I start back and the trailer is turning too soon once again.  I decide to just burn a pull-up and try again, rather that getting more marks for encroachment by trying to continue.  After pulling up, things are going better.  I finally get it parked after one more pull-up.  So that's at least two more marks here and I have no way of knowing about encroachment or clearance.

Nathan gets back in the truck and I anxiously asked him if we were continuing the exam.  He said yes!!!  We didn't go over the details since I passed but he had me down for 9 marks and I'm allowed 10.

The driving test was fairly easy.  He took on a route with urban, rural, and freeway driving.  We we returned back to the DMV, he informed me that I passed!  Finally, third time was the charm.

After getting my license I review my score sheet.  On the basic skills portion I had no marks for forward stop, straight line backing, or right hand turn.  On the alley dock, I had six.  Three for pull-ups, two for encroachment, and one for clearance.  And for the parallel park, two marks for pull-ups and one for clearance.  Apparently I wasn't quite with in the 12 ft wide area allowed for parallel parking.

On the drive test I was allowed 45 marks.  I only had 7 so that was a piece of cake.

So after reviewing all of this, I wonder if on the alley dock and parallel park one could just stop without really attempting the maneuvers and take his one mark each for clearance?  This way one wouldn't have to worry about pull-ups, and encroachment.  If you ever take a commercial driving exam in California, you might want to give it a try.

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