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Lines at the DMV

December 17th, 2007

Even though I live overseas, I keep my U.S. driver license up-to-date. Usually, this is pretty easy–the DMV allows you to renew your license via mail, at least for a certain number of times. But this year, my license expired without the ability to renew by mail, and I had no chance to renew in person as it happened in June, and I would not return to the U.S. until December. So I fully expected to have to go in and take a written test–18 or 36 questions or whatever.

Well, I was prepared. I downloaded the driver’s handbook, and studied it pretty well, filling my head with rules like the California Basic Speed Law and the Three Second Rule, and numbers like 100 feet before turning you have to start signaling, except when there’s a bike lane and you’re making a right turn, then it’s 200 feet, and so on. I took the five online sample tests the DMV puts on its web site, and missed something like 3 of the 50 questions. I even made a page and a half of written notes, something I always tell my students to do.

So I go to the DMV and wait my turn in line, and go up to the counter when they call me… and all they do is give me a vision test, then fingerprint and photograph me. Presto, my license is good again for five years. I still don’t know if I’ll have to take an exam the next time, but this time it was dead simple. Next time, at least, I’ll probably get this out of the way the December before it expires instead of the one after.

Still, this resonated when I read this blog, via Seeing the Forest:

…according to the Governor’s Budget Document, “Over the past two years, the DMV has reduced field office wait times in the largest offices from nearly one hour to 20 minutes and reduced customer telephone wait times by more than 50 percent.” These lines were decreased because the Governor committed to additional funding (demonstrating the direct relationship between funding and good service to the public.)

I’ll betcha there are other ways they do it–they just relate to worse or more risky service, so they’re not mentioned. You can reduce telephone wait time by having fewer human interactions and depending more or machines to answer the phones–which people like a lot less. You can also reduce wait times by requiring fewer tests (like they did with me), allowing longer mail-in renewals, and extending the period a license is valid for (five years nowadays–used to be four years). More funding is good, but it doesn’t mean that all the apparent improvements came from the funding. Administrators always ask for something before giving something.

Some improvements can also be made without funding, just better efficiency: go to the DMV web page for California and find the right office, and it’ll show you how long the line is. That can only help, by steering people to visit when lines are shorter. I checked several times and it was always less than 10 minutes… except, of course, for the time I had to go there, at which time it was about 25 minutes. Still, even at that, it was a shorter wait. I was just really surprised that the visit itself was shortened by there being no written test.

Not that I’m complaining about what it means to me personally… but I’d like to see the figures on traffic violations and fatalities relative to lessening of testing and other lightened regulations, if any correlation can reasonably be made. But let’s just not pretend that budget increases are all that’s doing the job.

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