What’s Going on at the DMV?: NMA E-Newsletter #509

For years, comedians have made fun of long lines at the DMV (Departments of Motor Vehicles), but you know what…it’s not really funny anymore.

The widespread problem seems to be three-fold.

·        Short term: A number of states are now under a tight deadline to implement REAL ID and motorists must apply for one in person.
·        Long term: Some state computer systems and software have not kept up with modern times.
·        Long term: There aren’t enough funds to either hire or find qualified personnel to fill positions for expanded services.

It’s a huge problem if you have all three issues such as the state of California.

By October 1, 2020, California will need to find a way to issue 23.5 million REAL IDs. That’s close to one million license conversions a month between now and then. Since January, the state has only issued 1.5 million. In the past year, California DMV wait times have risen 46 percent compared to 2017, but the agency reported in early October that it has been making progress by reducing customer-without-appointment wait times from 130 minutes in July to 73 minutes in September.

The underlying problem though is the very old computer system running the driver’s licensing system.  The California DMV has had dozens of computer blackouts in the past two years that brought the entire system down for hours at a time.

The governor ordered a performance audit last month and California lawmakers have also gotten involved. During a committee hearing this summer, DMV Director Jean Shiamoto said that they are also having an issue due to the service expansion of issuing a new digital driver’s license. Shiamoto asked lawmakers for an additional $26 million for more personnel on top of the $60 million budget increase granted last year. Recently, the DMV redesigned its website for easier access and officials are hopeful that drivers can now handle more of their business online.

Earlier this summer, Idaho and Colorado underwent an extensive computer upgrade through the company Gemalto, the largest DMV software vendor in the US. In Idaho, offices were closed for the first two weeks in August to facilitate the upgrade. By the end of August, the upgraded computer systems went down for more than a week, crippling the ability of every local driver’s license office to process everyday transactions in both states.

Idaho county sheriff offices oversee the state’s DMV offices and now they are asking the state to take over that function since these computer problems have been plaguing them for months. Sheriffs say their offices are not equipped to handle such ongoing problems. The Idaho governor has responded by putting a working group together to resolve the issues. Idahoans with expiring driver’s licenses now have until the end of October to renew them.

Minnesota started issuing REAL ID licenses on October 1 and so far no long lines have been reported. However, more than a year ago, a $100-million-plus computer system was rolled out and it is still plagued with problems. Lawmakers have proposed diverting $5.5 million from the REAL ID budget through February to work on the continuing issues. After February 2019, the work to fix the MNLARS system could cease if lawmakers and the governor do not provide additional funding. A more secure funding plan failed earlier this year.

Hawaii had longer lines this summer because a few years ago the state changed the length of a driver’s license expiration terms, from six to eight years. Two years ago, the DMV had 2,000 renewals per month and this year there are now 12,000 renewals per month. Hawaii introduced appointments and even opened up some offices on Saturday mornings. The department is also finding it difficult to fill positions.

Lines in North Carolina were so bad this summer that the DMV enlisted volunteers from all DOT employees to take on volunteer four-hour shifts. DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup says about 600,000 people have already gone through the REAL ID process with average wait times now twice as long as last year. In August, Jessup said that one of the biggest problems is filling positions. Out of the 552 driver’s licenses examiners, 80 positions remain open. The DMV has 113 DMV offices statewide.

In late August, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) announced that it planned to close 87 DMV offices to allow the agency to move staff and resources to other offices that serve more people. Seventy-eight of the offices set for closure were the only ones in their counties and many customers would have had to drive 50 miles or more for services.

Texas’s Sunset Commission rejected the recommendation to shutter the mainly rural offices. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick also objected to the idea and said that the biggest problem for DPS licensing offices is that a majority of people visit to renew driver’s licenses when that could be an online function. He has encouraged the DPS to develop a more aggressive plan to educate drivers about renewing online and has pledged to make this a high priority in the next legislative session.

The Sunset Committee also sent a recommendation to the legislature to transfer responsibility for the driver’s license program from DPS to the DMV. If approved, that transfer will take place by September 2021.

These problems across multiple states are not readily solved. Before you go to your local DMV office, the NMA recommends that you check the agency’s website and see if you can do your business online, at a kiosk or even at the service counter of your local grocery store or library. If not, then make sure you bring all the required documentation so that you won’t have to make another trip or stand in line more than once.

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