February 7, 2016

Opinion Column: Total preparation has no place at DMV

Corbin H. Crable


The old saying that, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes” is correct but still incomplete.

I’d add “the pain of dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles” to that short list.

Last week I decided to finally get a new drivers license, as I had moved recently. As anyone who has had to endure the ordeal knows, a kindergartner hopped up on sugar would have an easier time operating a particle accelerator than your average driver would have in getting a new license in a timely manner.

Before going to the DMV, I made sure to do my research. I made sure to get the right documents and to set aside enough time – sadly, I had to use an entire vacation day to do it.

But I was determined to beat the soulless DMV at its own game. Unlike the other members of the patient masses who wasted entire days standing in line only to be told they didn’t dot the appropriate ‘I’s, I would be prepared. I would wow those unenthusiastic DMV employees with my skills in organization.

I picked what I thought was the best time to go – mid-morning on Tuesday. I waited an hour in line and patiently read a book while trying to ignore the screaming, apparently parentless toddlers running around and the couple behind me arguing in Cantonese.

I wondered how long the others in line had been waiting. To help pass the time, I spoke with an older woman in front of me. She asked if I was also planning to register to vote, to which I responded yes. I knew she had been waiting in line a while when she asked whether I was planning to vote for Reagan or Mondale.

But no — I wasn’t going to let anything get me down today. I was going to beat the system.

Or so I thought.

After an hour, I approached a DMV employee who can only be described as the most apathetic, detached person I’ve ever met. She looked like she hadn’t smiled since Johnny Carson was on television. The employee looked to be in her mid- to late-thirties but wore her hair in a bun and bifocals on a chain around her neck, as if the mere nature of her job had prematurely aged her and she had resigned herself to having a matronly appearance at a young age.

“Hello,” I said cheerfully, trying my best to fake being smug and too self-confident. “I recently moved, and I need to get a new drivers license.”

As she had probably done every day of her life for the past 20 years, the young woman rattled off a list of the documents I needed to present. I gave her each one but grew increasingly worried as she frowned while entering the information into her computer.

“Your old license lists your full name, but your insurance card and proof of address only list your middle initial,” she correctly observed.

“Is that a problem?” I asked through gritted teeth, knowing I may as well turn around and head for the exit door now.

“I’ll need your birth certificate,” she yawned, but added that if I brought it to her by the end of the day, I could skip waiting in line and come directly to her.

My birth certificate! Of course! How could I forget that most important of documents? I hopped in my car, drove to the bank and withdrew it from my safety deposit box.

When I returned to the DMV a short time later, in mid-afternoon, the line was now out the door and wrapped around the building. I ignored others’ cries of

“What news have you of the outside world?” and “I have to go to the bathroom but can’t lose my place in line” and made my way to the employee’s desk. Of course, I received plenty of angry glares from the poor suckers still waiting.

“Here you go,” I said sweetly, handing my birth certificate to the woman, who gave me a look that said, “What, do you want a medal or something?”

“That’ll be $26,” she said, holding out her hand.

I handed her my debit card but then remembered that the DMV only takes cash. I won’t go into a rant about how such a large entity can operate with such a narrow-minded, 19th-century policy.

I looked in my wallet, found only $10 and cast a sad glance at the exit door once again.

That’s another part of the mystery that is the DMV: although the lobby is plastered with signs that urge you to get an H1N1 vaccination (in Spanish, no less), there’s not a sign to be found that tells you the cost of what you need to get. A “menu board” notifying those waiting in line that a new license indeed costs $26, for instance, would be helpful. But again, being helpful seems to go against the very core of the DMV’s mission: to suck away your work day in exchange for heartache, stress and frustration.

When I returned from getting money across the street, I once again walked past the line, which hadn’t moved an inch, and up to the employee’s desk.

“Here you go,” I said once again, sighing and plunking down the money a bit too dramatically.

And then, a few seconds later, I took a bad picture and it was over. So was my day, for the most part.

It’s sad that one has to set aside an entire day for a process that should, ideally, take only a few moments. But this is the world in which we live – and if there’s anything that day taught me, it’s that you can’t outsmart the DMV.

They’ll always be one step ahead of you.


  1. I have to say, I had the exact opposite experience when I went to replace my driver’s license last year. I did a little research and found out which days are the least busy (middle of the week around 10am) and made sure I had all the documentation I needed before I got there. I was in and out of the office in about 15 minutes. A little preparation beforehand can make a huge difference.

  2. Corbin: Don’t ya love the Kathy put-down she gave you – sounds like Melissa Mundt or Laura Gourley to me. Government employees who you work for rather than public servants of days gone by – I am surprised they didn’t tell you that due to budget cuts, they are only open for two hours a day, 2 days a week and it will take you 6 weeks to get your license and 6 weeks as you have to update your place in line each week.

    DMV had cleaned up their act I thought on getting plates for your vehicles but it looks like they still have problems when you need service on drivers licenses. Like I said earlier, at this particular time they will use that budget cuts excuse for anything and everything so I am truly surprised you didn’t get that one.

    They need to give you a button to wear that says: “I survived going to the DMV Office” but oh, yeah, due to budget cuts, you have to buy those for $5 a piece.


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