Cody Akai sat in the passenger seat of his parents’ gray Honda CRV as his mom drove him to Sheridan Park’s Department of Motor Vehicles to take his road test. It would be his first road test. He was nervous but ready to give it a try.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeOne of Akai’s friends, who had attempted the road test before him, warned Akai that he had failed twice at Sheridan Park before, during the road portion, and also once at Kaneohe due to a broken headlight. It was not going to be easy. But Sheridan Park was the closest testing location to Akai’s home in Palolo. He figured he would eventually have to drive in town, so why not test there?

What Akai didn’t know was that Sheridan Park had the lowest average passing rate of driver’s license testing locations in 2021, according to data provided by the Honolulu Department of Customer Services through a public records request.

Last year, less than half of the people who tested at Sheridan Park — 45% — passed. During that same time period, those who took road tests in Waianae, about 30 miles away, were passing at an average rate of 70%, a marked difference between the two testing stations.

Between 2017 and 2021, Waianae led testing sites with an average passing rate of 64%, followed by Koolau at 60%, Kapolei at 53% and Wahiawa at 48%.

King Street car traffic.
The city’s driver’s license testing site at Sheridan Park, which has a route that weaves through Honolulu’s major roads, has the lowest passing rate on the island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Whether one passes a road test is not intended to be based on location but rather the city’s point system. Certain road test violations are worth more points than others. If one receives 20 points or less, they pass. Certain violations, such as running a red light or going over the speed limit, result in an automatic failure.

Kim Hashiro, the director designate of the city Department of Customer Services, said road testers receive training when they are hired and are trained periodically afterward. But the agency has not been able to offer an update to that training since 2019.

Hashiro speculated that the differences in passing rates could be affected by the applicant pool itself, but wouldn’t speculate further than that. She said that ignoring the road test’s specific grading standards was not an action supported by the city, but she said that it could happen.

“We’re committed to bringing consistency to road test features,” Hashiro said. “It’s really unacceptable for any driver examiner to ignore rules.”

Navigating The Roads

Those scheduling their own road test don’t have a say in who conducts their examination, but they do get to choose where they take the test. Many avoid the Sheridan Park station.

“There are a lot of Biki Bikes. It’s a high density pedestrian traffic flow. You are driving in partial residential areas. You’re driving in commercial areas,” said Scott Kekumano, co-owner of Keku’s Driving Academy, regarding the Sheridan Park location. “It’s a lot different as opposed to being in Wahiawa.”

Sheridan Park was established as a road testing location in 2021, after the city stopped road testing at Kapalama in October 2020. In 2019, Kapalama’s average passing rate was 46%, so both locations were at the bottom of the list.

Rail construction in Kalihi had students dodging cones and running over metal plates, Kekumano said. Cars lining up for gas at Costco and creating road blockages also made the route difficult.

Rail guideway construction near the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Dodging rail construction made the route at a former testing location difficult to navigate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Hashiro said the agency stopped offering road tests at Kapalama because of the area’s high traffic.

“The road tests were taking up to an hour,” she said. “When it moved to Sheridan, it actually cut that time down to about half.” She added that the move allowed the agency to double the number of daily tests.

Traffic could still be a problem at other locations. The Wahiawa location, for example, has narrow and often congested streets, which make it hard for new drivers to navigate, driving instructor Melissa Faufata said.

The Waianae location, which had the highest average passing rate in the last five years, often has jaywalking pedestrians and drivers who don’t always follow the speed limit, she said, but the route that examiners may direct their examinees through is limited to a smaller area.

Koolau, which has the second highest passing rate, is similar in its small course range, Faufata said. The area is also mostly residential, Kekumano said.

Overseeing Examiners

On social media, new drivers about to take their road test are often warned about a particularly strict examiner, commonly referred to as the “Dragon Lady,” although there wasn’t a consensus on which DMV she works at, or even who specifically this person was.

Whether she exists or not, the driving examiner has taken on mythic proportions. It’s possible she just represents a fear in the new drivers of getting an unfairly cruel examiner, and different examiners embody that role for those taking the test.

Audrey Pilar, who passed her road exam at Waianae in 2019, heard from friends that a particular female examiner at Wahiawa, commonly known as the “Dragon Lady” was mean and rarely passed drivers.

Gabriana Wond, who passed her road test at Kapolei in June 2021, heard from friends that testing sites at Kapolei and Waianae were easier places to test.

“The testers were nice, and I heard the route was easier,” Wond said.

Hashiro, of the Department of Customer Services, said she looks into concerns about specific examiners by looking through social media comments and working with driving schools, but she had not previously made that a part of her typical oversight practice. The city is also in the process of developing customer service reports for examiners.

The city has focused primarily on the technical aspect of ensuring that new drivers safely adhere to the rules of the road, Hashiro said. But she hopes they can also begin putting more focus on the department’s service and interaction with the public.

Passing The Test

Akai, the student taking his first road test at Sheridan Park, was told by friends that the Koolau test site was the best place to go, due to its wide residential streets, lack of traffic, and ample parking.

But Akai was set on trying the Sheridan Park route. He had practiced there for two months with Wong Way Driving School before booking the earliest available appointment he could make. By the time his testing day arrived, he felt confident that he would do well.

Akai observed the roads for traffic on his way to the Sheridan DMV. It was a sunny day, and he had scheduled his road test for 11 a.m., hoping to avoid peak traffic hours.

Upon arrival, Akai walked into the Sheridan Park DMV to check-in and show his documentation. It was only a few minutes later that his examiner came out to begin the road test.

“‘All right, this is a driving test. You will not be talking to me. Just focus on driving,’” Akai recalled the examiner telling him as they walked to his car. “And when we got in the car, she did a second reminder. I’d say she was nice, but intimidating.”

Once on the road, Akai’s examiner began giving him instructions about where to go.

Kapalama Driver License Center. This was the Diamond Head side.
The city is working on a better process to oversee driving examiners. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“We started on Piikoi, and I think we went all the way down and turned left to King Street. And from King Street, we went all the way to Kakaako,” Akai recalled.

From there, Akai was instructed to pull into a side street and parallel park. Akai’s road test went smoothly, he said, until the car came to a four-way stop. Akai looked both ways, saw that the way was clear and proceeded to drive through the intersection.

“She told me it wasn’t a common thing, but you’re supposed to look back and forth once for cars, and then you look back and forth again for pedestrians,” Akai said. The examiner marked down his score for that, he said.

Akai’s examiner explained the score she gave to him after they returned to the DMV and were parked. Aside from the incident at the four-way stop, he had missed a head check and driven under the speed limit at Ala Moana Boulevard. With just 15 out of 20 points marked, she told Akai he passed.

“I was shocked and relieved,” Akai said, laughing. “Shocked because I passed the test on my first try, and relieved because it was over.”

Akai received a temporary driver’s license that day to use until his official one came in the mail about two weeks later.

No Tricks

Driving instructors Kekumano and Faufata said that the city makes efforts to standardize the road tests. Siegfried and Jenson ranked states according to their road test’s level of ease, and Hawaii was in the upper half of the list, 15th easiest.

“They’re not here to trick anybody,” Kekumano said. “Although I hear some stories, it’s very basic and very fundamental.”

Neither Kekumano nor Faufata have ever recommended students choose a road testing location based on its testers or its level of ease, they said. Kekumano recommends taking the test nearest to their hometown.

“They’re familiar with the traffic, they’re familiar with the area, pedestrian traffic,” Kekumano said. “Every community has their own unique characteristics.”

Faufata believes that with the right preparation, a student shouldn’t feel the need to avoid any of the DMV testing locations.

“People pass at all the stations every day,” Faufata said. “If we do what we have to do, we train them properly, they take all those skills and use them like how they’re supposed to use them, then they should have no problem passing at any station.”

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