Living without a driver's license had become a hassle for Trulin Flemming. A self-employed plumber, he walked, took cabs and rode buses to his jobs, sometimes lugging pipes and heavy fittings along with him.
So when the 33-year-old District resident inherited a 1973 Oldsmobile Congressional from his father, he decided it was time to get his license and go mobile.
That was in July. Last week, Flemming finally passed his road test -- after waiting almost two months for a date with a D.C. driving examiner.
"I felt great," he said after leaping from his massive, olive-green car and pumping his fist in the air in celebration. But, he added, "the wait was a big inconvenience."
Inconvenience -- not to mention frustration and anger -- has become as much a part of getting a District driver's license as learning how to cope with traffic jams.
According to officials of the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, prospective drivers in the District must wait an average of 57 days to take the road test. In contrast, residents of Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties take their road tests on a walk-in basis, with waiting periods measured in hours instead of months.
The problem, District officials say, is the same one afflicting many other city agencies: too much work and not enough money.
Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, which oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, said the bureau is authorized to have 12 full-time and five part-time examiners.
But budget constraints have forced it to cut back to seven full-time examiners and no part-timers, she said. And those examiners who remain face a daunting workload: About 22,000 road tests and 66,000 learner's permit examinations are administered each year in the city.
Officials said the staff shortage becomes especially acute during the summer, when the number of requests for road tests rises significantly.
"When you handle as many people as we do, it's very frustrating," said Jim Nance, deputy chief of the bureau. "You try to do as many things as you can to offset the shortages. That's really all you can do."
To that end, the city has authorized the bureau to add three full-timers -- they have not yet been hired -- and within the next few weeks will open the District's road-test site at Brentwood Road and W Street NE on Saturdays to help whittle the backlog, Nance said.
But those changes come a little late for George Henry, 35, who had to wait 51 days to take his road test.
Henry arrived in the District from Jamaica about 18 months ago and works as a housekeeper at a hotel in Greenbelt. Taking a bus and a Metro train, Henry said, he gets to work in an hour; he figures it would take half as long in a car.
Henry said that he would like to get another job, but that the long wait for a license has limited his options.
"I feel bad about it because maybe I could have a driving job by now, you know, get a little more money," he said. "When you get a license, you can get a better job. You don't have to worry about going far out" from the District.
Moges Guangul, 36, a cashier at a service station, understands Henry's frustration. Guangul decided recently to become a cabdriver, but his goal was deferred by a 55-day wait for his exam.
"To have to wait so long, it is not good," said Guangul, who came to Washington from Ethiopia four years ago. "It hurts you. If you want to deliver pizza, you cannot do it. If you want to drive a cab, you cannot do it. Once I get a license, everything will be okay."
Under District law, a person with a learner's permit can drive only if accompanied by a driver with a valid license. Those who flout that law risk arrest and a $50 fine.
Yet those penalties don't stop some people from driving solo on a learner's permit. One Northwest resident drove her mother's car during her 50-day wait for the test because, she said, she had no choice.
"I knew I wasn't supposed to, but I had to get to work and do other things," said the woman, who was taking the road test because her license was suspended in April 1989. "It's a problem if you don't live near a Metro. I live near a bus stop, but sometimes you want to go somewhere and you don't want to go on a bus."
Not everyone has to endure a long wait. For example, a District resident 75 or older, who must take a road test to obtain a license renewal, can get an appointment within a week. And a person hired for a job that requires driving can get a letter from the employer, resulting in a moved-up date.
Some lucky few make their test appointments just after someone else has canceled, meaning that they may have to wait only 30 or 40 days. But for some, even that's too long.
On a recent afternoon, Walford Dacosta, 18, who had waited just 44 days for his exam, squatted atop a steel bench at the Brentwood Road facility and waited for an examiner to call his number.
"I'm a little nervous," said Dacosta, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. "If I fail it, I probably will have to wait all that time again."