The quest for a CDL Part IV: I’m legal … kind of

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Updated Jul 18, 2016

CDL_permitThe following things are not cool: Pokemon Go, oral surgery and being confined to the prison camp that is your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office.

After countless hours and online practice test taking, Thursday I was finally ready to attempt the written test for a CDL permit and struck out to the Marengo County Courthouse in Linden, Ala.

Here’s my take on online practice tests: Take every one you can find. They are all pretty similar but are not exactly the same. Wording is a little different. A few have unique questions. Do them all. They’re free. You can find hundreds of them. Take as many as possible. Don’t marry yourself to one website. Early on, I spent too much time on one specific test. Once I mastered that one, I took a different test on a different site and bombed. In hindsight, I should have included more variety to get a wider spectrum of questions.

When it comes to the General Knowledge part of the test, none of the practice tests are as good as this. Not even close. More on that later, but download and save that before someone deletes it. And if you figure out who wrote it, send them a fruit basket.

The people that work in the Marengo County, Ala., DMV could not have been nicer, more professional or more helpful. It’s just that the entire process moves so mind-numbingly slow that they unfairly shoulder much of the frustrations suffered by the people in the waiting area. That’s only amplified when the computers that make this whole process go don’t cooperate. Which happened. Twice.

Coincidentally, when I went to get my diver’s license almost exactly 20 years earlier the computers were down then, too. Maybe it’s just me.

I was awestruck from the moment I walked through the door. For one, I grossly underestimated how many people would be packed into this small area before 8:30 a.m. I called last week and the person who answered the phone told me to be there at 8:30 to avoid “the long wait.” I sat there for two hours before ever being acknowledged, so thanks for the tip. Had I arrived later, I might still be there.

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That kind of time on your hands gives you an opportunity to talk to the people who are sharing your pain of waiting in a windowless room, and from those people I learned a great deal.


• A lot of people in my county – I mean A LOT – get their license revoked or suspended for DUI.

• Most of those people think it’s the DMV’s fault.

• An alarming number of people lose, as in misplace, their license.

• You can take the driver’s permit test as many times as you want, or until you run out of $5.

• Kids today don’t have to take Driver’s Ed. and will never know the joys of picking up the teacher’s dry cleaning while taking the “road test.”

• If you do take Driver’s Ed. and pass, you don’t have to take the state road test. I did both. That would have saved me a long time waiting for those computers to come online in 1996.

• There is no greater feeling of relief after three hours of sitting in an uncomfortable chair and having these conversations than to hear someone yell, “Mr. Cannon?!”

After a vision screening – my second in a week – I was ushered to one of three testing computers. It was time to get this done.

I took the Air Brake test first. In practice I generally scored highest on that one and wanted to come out of the gate strong. Boom. Pass.

Next up, Combination Vehicles. Only 20 question on that one. Can only miss four. Boy, when that sinks in you get the flop sweats. Boom. Pass, again.

Lastly, General Knowledge. This one was last for a reason. I took this practice test more than any other and never scored much higher than passing. My margin for error here was razor thin and I wanted to be in a test-taking groove before tackling this one.

But there was a problem on the horizon that I wasn’t prepared for. The DMV goes to lunch at noon. Guess what time it was.

Generally something like that would bother me but near the end of my second test, I had figured out a handy little tip. Skipping is your friend. I took the unexpected interruption of my mojo to do some math and figure out how skipping the questions I didn’t have at least an 80 percent chance of getting right could work to my advantage.

In my head, it went down like this: The test shuts off when you get 40 of the 50 questions on your test correct or when you get 11 wrong, whichever comes first. The questions you skip are placed at the end. If you don’t know the answer, shove it to the end of the test and it may not even matter. I could skip 10 before having to answer any question with a high probability of getting it wrong.

Remember in my previous blog when I mentioned a habit of overthinking things? Yeah. I wasn’t kidding. 

As a bonus, I was Googling on my phone in a Subway killing time while the DMV folks ate lunch when I stumbled on the study guide I linked above. There were questions and answers on there that I’d never seen before and it was written in a very digestible format. I had time for a last second cram session.

With my strategy and newly found study guide in hand – Boom. My third and final pass and with only three misses. My best score when it mattered most.

Here’s a tip on skipping that I figured out the hard way: You get them at the end in the order you skipped them and you can’t skip them again. If you have no idea what the answer is to question 2 and skip it but have a pretty good idea on 3 but skip it because you’re not certain, you’ll have to answer 2 before you get 3. Skipping is the parking area for, “I don’t have the foggiest idea.”

That’s the most nervous I’ve been taking a test since may days of having to get an A on a test in high school just to pass the class. I don’t miss that feeling at all.

Now the real challenge, and the most fun, is ahead – keeping a semi on the road and off of cars.

I’ll see you all on the highway and, hopefully, not on the side of it … with three reflective markers placed at 10, 100 and 200 feet at the rear to warn oncoming traffic of the hazard that is my parked vehicle. That wasn’t on the test by the way.

I’ll continuously blog my “quest for a CDL” as I navigate through the process, and I hope you’ll find it a humorous journey from the prospective of a guy who just wants to learn to drive – legally. Part I can be found here. Part II can be found here, and Part III here

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected]