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Can the Internet Cure the DMV?

By: Bridget Clerkin March 12, 2019
Frustrated by growing lines at the DMV, state governments are offering more online services.
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It’s the experience that’s launched a thousand memes: The infinite wait in the ever-snaking line that has become all but synonymous with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

But in a country where the past half-century of urban design has made car-free living nearly all but impossible, you can’t go very far without it, even if it takes all day to go very far.

At the center of this DMV myth lies a mystery: What, exactly, is it about the agency that seems to have such powers over the passing of time?

Perhaps it’s the confluence of confusing paperwork coming from both state and federal directions. Few rules and hardly any forms carry over from state to state, making it especially annoying when figuring out how to get all your ducks in a row.

The clerks at the kiosks will likely be able to help, but asking them for advice? Well, there’s a line for that, too.

Such is the fate of the average DMV-goer, stymied and frustrated and ready to unleash all the day’s stress upon workers there, workers who have already heard it from everyone else in line. It’s a dreary no-win situation, but offices across the country are trying to change all that.

Hoping to harness some of the internet’s lightning-quick speed, DMVs everywhere are cultivating a strong online presence, transferring as many processes as possible to the World Wide Web.

In a modern world, these innovations seem all but inevitable, and some have even proven to help move the dial for DMV wait times.

But other instances have seen offices seemingly jump the gun, resulting in even longer wait times as they sift through glitches and spend millions on repairs, making it harder to shake off their slow reputation.

It may seem that the agency is ultimately cursed, but in the Age of the Internet, is the embrace of online culture the cure the DMV needs?

Groundhog Day

Promises to improve the efficiency of the DMV are far from rare (and far outdate the advent of the internet). But it seems they create more trouble for the agency just as often, and the extensive reach of the World Wide Web has only exacerbated those issues.

In the past few years alone, computer glitches at agencies across the country have been held responsible for everything from accidentally suspending drivers licenses to halting the judicial process for those whose licenses were actually suspended.

And the trouble can sometimes extend outside of the world of transportation. California’s DMV found itself the topic of much unfortunate conversation this past election season when DMV computing errors were blamed for the ultimate mishandling of tens of thousands of voter registrations.

One obvious solution—plugging those holes by doubling-down on the technological effort. But this attempt to troubleshoot has also been known to backfire.

Newly-installed software in Connecticut a few years ago—meant to streamline operations—resulted instead in the tripling of wait times for DMV customers there, and only grew worse as technicians were sent in to tame the small amount of general chaos that ensued when the programs sent various information to all the wrong offices.

An effort to implement DMV services online in Minnesota similarly spiraled out of control, when a parade of mistakes dragged the event out by 9 years—and $100 million.

To be sure, these glitches aren’t all the fault of the DMV. The software itself—and the companies charged with installing it—must also be held accountable.

But with the uneven results of internal modernization in mind, many offices have also sought out ways to ease the burden of waiting by offering more opportunities for online DMV transactions.

At Your Service

kids on laptops on a couch
In March 2018, the Arizona MVD began allowing teenagers to take their permit tests online. The program dramatically reduced the amount of office visits.

The internet hasn’t just changed our society, it’s transformed our modern landscape—literally.

From the widespread shuttering of brick and mortar shops to the spreading of some companies’ influence—and staff—across the globe, physical offices have not been the same since we’ve discovered the ability to replicate nearly anything we want in the virtual sphere.

The DMV is no different.

The agency’s offices are still scattered throughout the country, but much of what they do there has since been made available online.

The transfer of responsibilities is widely considered a good thing, offering more opportunities to get simple procedures completed quickly and easily for those who live far away from their closest DMV location, or anyone who simply doesn’t want to chance waiting in line.

(Those who must enter the DMV to complete their task can hedge those bets, however, by scheduling their DMV appointment online, also thanks to the powers of the internet.)

While no public surveys currently exist to track how much faster these online DMV services have made things, it’s safe to assume that they’ve helped knock a number of people off the line at the office.

And at least one state has the receipts on the streamlined results of its online offerings—and they seem to add up to success.

Technology Permitted

Last March, the Grand Canyon State embarked on a grand experiment with its state Motor Vehicle Division (MVD), and it’s already seeing impressive results.

The idea was to help streamline operations in the area’s offices by offering more online DMV services for residents—including the ability to take the written driver’s permit test. The result: a program called Permit Test @ Home.

“At our MVD in Arizona, they’re very cognizant of any ideas that might come up that will help lower the amount of customer traffic in the physical offices,” said Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) spokesman, Doug Nick. “It’s really been a strong success.”

And the numbers back up his claim.

Not even available for a full year yet, the online test has already been taken 66,700 times, at a rate of roughly 6,500 tests a month, according to Nick. And, since a parent or guardian must accompany a minor to the MVD to take the test in person, the introduction of the online equivalent has kept about 133,000 customers from walking through physical office doors, he said.

All told, that reduction is equal to about 18 full business days work for MVDs across the state, freeing up an immense amount of time and resources at the locations, according to Nick.

“What that means, obviously, is fewer people having to go into the office, and for those who do have to go in, those people are getting served faster,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see the numbers.”

The online DMV system works with the help of ADOT’s online portal, called AZ MVD Now. A parent or guardian must first create an account, and it’s through this account which the test is taken. The account holder must also agree to proctor the test.

While the system does technically leave open the possibility of cheating, Nick said the likelihood of such an occurrence was low.

Parents have a pretty strong motivation to not allow their kids to do this dishonestly,” he said. “If you’re going to have a learner’s permit in Arizona, you have to have a passenger in the front seat with you whenever you drive. Usually, that’s mom or dad, so that gives them a pretty strong incentive to make sure their kid knows what they’re doing.”

Users have three chances to pass the test online. Once it’s been successfully finished, a confirmation is printed out, and this must be physically transported to the MVD, to exchange for a permit.

Still, with the program eliminating at least one in-person step from the permitting process, Nick says the idea has been considered a success, and will be offered indefinitely. Other states have taken notice, with several other DMV offices contacting ADOT to ask about setting up their own at-home permit test programs, Nick said.

“When you just look at how the perceptions of MVDs, DMVs are—we know what the perception is, and it’s not particularly good,” he said. “So if there’s something out there that can change the reality that changes the perception, that’s going to be good for everyone.”

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