By Chris Reed.
It’s back to the bad old days of being both a punching bag and a punchline for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
In the final decades of the 20th century, the state DMV was scorned for its bureaucratic sluggishness and bored clerks. But the arrival of the internet as a tool to make taking care of some routine transactions much easier online and to schedule appointments for tests and renewals produced an era of relatively positive appraisals.
In 2006, San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Richards caught this moment in a front-page story:
“People coming in to renew licenses, solve registration problems, pay fees and deal with what was once a most painful experience.
“Not any more. This is the new Department of Motor Vehicles, where customer service is a top priority, waits are down to minutes, there are chairs, and even clean bathrooms. Frowns, scowls and worried looks of the past have been replaced by – get this – smiling customers.
“All the result of beefed-up staffing, internet service options and a new electronic queuing system at most branches.”
In 2008, Richards did a follow-up column in which he wrote about positive experiences that local readers had at DMV offices in San Mateo, Redwood City and Los Gatos.
But after the events of 2018, this brief era of goodwill toward the DMV seems like distant, almost implausible history. Wait times are nearly 50 percent longer at DMV offices than last summer.
Agency officials blame the increased workload created by the state’s obligations under the federal 2005 Real ID Act. By October 2020, Californians must have new federal ID cards before they can fly on commercial aircrafts. The DMV began issuing the IDs on Jan. 1.
But despite having years to prepare for the new obligation, DMV leaders seemed surprised by the extra workload.
Bitter public complaints have already led the Legislature to appropriate nearly $17 million so the agency can hire 230 new workers to reduce wait times. But based on public complaints, those hired so far haven’t seemed to improve wait times.
When legislative Democrats last week heeded the Brown administration’s request and balked at asking state Auditor Elaine Howle to review the DMV, the scandal – or at least criticism from state pundits – only intensified.
Last weekend, in its latest move to address critics, the DMV began keeping 60 offices around the state open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
DMV chief says she expects much faster service
The agency’s director, Jean Shiomoto, told the Sacramento Bee that her goal is for those with appointments to wait no more than 15 minutes and for those without appointments to wait no more than 45 minutes.
“You’ve got to put an ambitious goal out there to reach it,” she said. “That is what we are definitely working to achieve.”
But lawmakers don’t seem confident of any relief soon.
Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, announced that she planned to introduce legislation that would give 90-day extensions of renewal deadlines for those with licenses that expire this year.
Her rationale: “No Californian should spend an entire day off work waiting in line to take care of DMV business or wait for several weeks to make an appointment. The media stories and firsthand accounts from constituents about shockingly long wait times and other logistical challenges at DMV offices demands that the Legislature act quickly.”