As Drivers Face Stronger ID Rules, States DMVs See Customer Onslaught

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A common message in many states: ‘Save a trip, skip the line and renew online.’

SEATTLE — They’re singing and dancing and prancing around a driver’s license office with smiles on their faces—customers with an upbeat and proactive message for Washington state residents: “Save a trip, skip the line and renew online.”

The Washington State Department of Licensing, which is responsible for issuing driver’s licenses and other official state identification, is promoting its online service options for routine tasks like license renewals. That includes “Renew Online: The DOL Musical,” a commercial that’s been airing on local television.

Other states have been touting their online service options with their Department of Motor Vehicles or equivalent agency, though perhaps not quite with the same level of musical pizzaz.

Avoiding unnecessary trips to a brick-and-mortar location is a priority for DMVs across the nation, especially as drivers seek licenses that are compliant with the federal REAL ID Act, a law passed in 2005 to boost the security of state-issued IDs. While some states are already REAL ID Act compliant, many others are facing an October 2020 deadline when non-compliant IDs won’t be accepted at all federal facilities, including Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at airports.

Officials in many states have opposed the federal requirements over the years, leading to various delays, extensions and grace periods depending on the state—for instance, the Department of Homeland Security recently granted Missouri an extension for compliance through early next year.

Californians face a 2020 deadline to have a compliant ID, but unlike the dancing customers in Washington state, few in the Golden State are feeling jovial and carefree about their recent experiences at a DMV field office.

The long lines and wait times at branches across the state has generated a regular drumbeat of unwanted attention for the agency, including an uproar over a supposedly “secret” DMV branch office for lawmakers and state employees at the State Capitol in Sacramento, reports of the California DMV screwing up 23,000 voter registrations and drivers traveling great distances for appointments at less-busy field offices. Some state lawmakers are calling for heads to roll at the DMV as their constituents’ blood boils.

California drivers aren’t the only ones pressured by the long lines: DMV employees are also stressed dealing with the onslaught of customers seeking a driver’s licence compliant with the federal rules just as the state agency has been upgrading its aging customer processing system. As The Mercury News reported earlier this month, overtime paid to California DMV field office personnel jumped 232 percent during the first six months of 2018.

Amid a new hiring blitz for field offices, expanded service hours, text message alerts for appointments to ease the wait times—or at least make them slightly more tolerable—the California DMV has also been rolling out new self-service kiosks at some grocery locations in places like Los Angeles and San Diego. One-hundred twenty kiosks have been installed statewide at DMV offices, grocery stores, libraries and AAA auto clubs with 45 more planned to be operational by the end of the year.

The more people can use a DMV self-service option over adding to the wait times at a brick-and-mortar field office, the better for everyone’s stress levels.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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