Getting a Driver’s License in the San Francisco Bay Area

I recently, as of September 5th, accomplished one of my goals since moving into my nerdy autodidact house, Memory Palace: Getting a driver’s license! From getting the permit in late January to getting the license on September 5th, I spent probably way too much time fretting and not really focusing on studying ML, but alas. It’s over forever!

Note that I know next-to-nothing about the process for teenagers, although I understand that there are more restrictions about who can drive with you and you need to wait 6 months from getting a license before scheduling the driving exam. This is a summary written for nerds like me who were too busy studying for the entire first 21 years of life to consider getting a license.

Permit exam

The permit exam tests only your knowledge of “DL600”. Here’s the web version, and here’s the PDF. I was also able to find a physical copy of it at a public library.

You can schedule the permit exam, but you can also walk into the DMV to take it, if you are willing to stand in line for a long while.

Driving Schools

I used A Deluxe Driving School in Mountain View first, but I liked Bay Area Driving Academy more. Both service the South Bay and Peninsula area. The former required you to pay for a class before scheduling, which is somewhat stress inducing for people like me who schedule at the last minute. It also intends only a 3-course curriculum, which might be fine for a teenager which access to a family vehicle to practice with, but isn’t great for me (in my early 20’s with sporadic access to vehicles from great friends who don’t mind a nooby driver possibly crashing their cars!). I liked that Bay Area Driving Academy allowed scheduling specific types of practices as well. I highly recommend it.

Scheduling at the DMV

Scheduling is a nightmare at the DMV! As mentioned before, you don’t need to schedule your permit exam, but you do need to schedule your on-the-road driving exam. This is where you schedule the driving exam: https://www.dmv.ca.gov/wasapp/foa/driveTest.do

Now here’s the problem: You can only schedule up to 90 days in advance. This means that you will often see a message that there are no more available time slots!

How do you get around this? Schedule at exactly 9 AM in the morning. The DMV uses some kind of batch processing, so that (1) the 90th day from the current day has all of its appointments opened at once at 9 AM and (2) all canceled appointments from the previous day are made available at 9 AM as well.

There is definitely an opportunity here for a service to book appointments automatically. In fact, I suspect that a company called “yogov” made a bot to automate finding appointments for you. Luckily, you don’t need to use the bot now that you’re in on the secret!

An annoying note: You can take the exam up to 3 times after getting your permit, but in the worst case you will have to wait 90 days between each booking (you cannot reserve more than one exam at once), should you fail. Your permit expires after one year of holding it. This means that you need to take your first driving exam 6 months after getting your permit if you don’t want to minimize your chances of repeating the permit process, which may not be enough time for you personally to be ready. Yes, it’s some dumb Catch-22 governmental nonsense.

Driving Exam Educational Resources

The driving manual is, to speak frankly, a poor guide to actual driving. For example, I never really understood that you’re supposed to look over your shoulder to check only the rear passenger window, not the back of the car, until a driving instructor saw what I was doing and asked why I was looking out the back windshield, since my rearview mirror already shows me what’s there.

I had a hard time finding good written materials on driving. Much of the material out there strikes as being written for racers motorcyclists, top gear fans, and so on. This surprises me, since so many Americans depend upon driving every day. But anyway, http://drivinginstructorblog.com is a great resource for developing a low-level understanding of various driving techniques and maneuvers, even though the author is Canadian. The best book I read (there are not many!) on driving was Crashproof Your Kids. It’s written for parents teaching their kids how to drive and has some silly padding like describing how poorly teenagers communicate, but I appreciate that it really emphasizes points like:

  • Cars are expensive, but you are worth more than a car in an accident.
  • Driving is a great responsibility.
  • The state of driving education in America is susprisingly simple, given the complexity of the task.
  • What you should do in case of an accident, poor weather, or other emergency situations.
  • It’s written by a father who was concerned about his daughter driving.

I feel that the book was rather high-level, though. It doesn’t describe the basics of car control at all. Rather, it suggests exercises to develop skills.

I don’t recommend How to Drive. I appreciate that the author really enjoys driving, but it strikes me as “fun reading” rather than educational reading. I also get the impression that it’s also written for an audience of gear heads who also happen to understand physics, which is a strange audience to say the least. There’s a lot of “fluff” in the book as well, which dilutes the content on how to drive effectively. I’ll take the book written by the concerned father of teenagers about safe driving instead. I get the impression that there is a dearth of material for people who need to drive for their lifestyle, but are not car nerds who care about max performance, going fast, etc. etc.

Everything on the exam is described in a document called DL955. I found this helpful to review just before the exam to make sure I understood I didn’t make any critical mistakes, that could cause me to fail the exam.

Costs of Car Ownership

Cars are expensive! I won’t be buying one anytime soon with my current lifestyle (living next to downtown and the Caltrain stop, biking to work, and taking Lyfts when necessary). Here’s some ballpark numbers I’ve heard from my friends regarding costs:

  • $25,000 for a new Toyota Prius
  • $12,000 for a used Toyota Prius
  • $60 a month for car insurance.
  • Gas is expensive!
  • Include maintenance is total cost of ownership. Japanese cars have less maintenance costs because many mechanics are familiar with them, apparently.
  • Don’t buy a used car for less than $5,000.
  • Don’t buy a new car unless you expect to use it for 10 years.

Note that I haven’t fact checked these myself. But it got the point across that driving isn’t cheap!

What’s next

I have completed two of my long-term goals now: Getting my finances in order and getting a license. Now, I want to focus on the really important stuff: my education as a machine learning engineer and C++ programmer, as well as my personal brand. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it may mean seriously doing a side project to completion (project management, yikes!) and delivering something. Or it may mean seriously reading a lot of machine learning books and papers, doing all their exercises, and summarizing them here. Or public speaking. I have my housemates to keep me accountable!