Friday, April 28, 2006

DMV: An Agency Past Its Prime

I wrote the below opinion article in the year 2000. Little has changed since then as far as the DMV "culture" is concerned.

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DMV: An Agency Past Its Prime
by Marc Montoni

You hear it all the time. People everywhere, in every state, always complain about their state's motor vehicle agency. In Virginia the culprit goes by the name "Division of Motor Vehicles", or "DMV".

You swear every time you walk out of the DMV that you're going to call your state legislators and let them know what you think of the slow service, the bureaucrat behind the counter that treated you like a number and had that "us against them" attitude, and other grievances. But you never do, because you know the odds are stacked very high in favor of the DMV.

Legislators like motor vehicle departments because they are cash cows. They are because they can charge you whatever they like in exchange for allowing you to drive. If you can't drive, you can't participate in this economy. Indeed, even if you do find a way to participate in the economy without driving, you still have to go to the DMV and allow them to photograph, catalog, number, and profile you so you can get an ID card so you can get a job. Other, non-state-issued forms of ID are not "permissible" as proof of citizenship so your employer can allow you on the site and pay you. By definition, this is an extortion racket.

A recent trip I made to a brand-new DMV branch office in my former hometown of Richmond was a typical experience. You wouldn't know that working conditions had improved with the new building, because the reception wasn't very different from previous trips to the rented office in a shopping center.

Walking inside the palatial new branch office, I was directed to an information desk where clerks give you the forms to do what you need to do. They give you a time-stamped number strip, and you go sit down. And wait. And wait.

I wasn't there during a rush, either. Lunchtime is their rush, when people who are out doing productive work in the private sector have to skip lunch to pay their dues to the cash cow. I have never seen a DMV plan for a lunch rush, though -- in fact, it sure seems to me that, similar to the Post Office, during the lunch rush is exactly when they send their own employees to... well, lunch. Not even a second thought to staggering their work hours.

While I waited, I looked at the number strip I'd been handed -- and discovered that the time stamp was two minutes ahead of the actual time. Funny, I had already been sitting there for fifteen minutes -- so the time stamp on the number strip was about seventeen minutes ahead of real time when it was printed. I came to the admittedly cynical conclusion that the branch managers use the times on those number strips to "prove" customer waiting times are half as long as they really are. Interesting ruse.

I was called by the computer and went to the window it told me to go to. I wanted to trade in the regular plates on my older car on the new orange "antique" plates I'd heard about. I didn't know it at the time, but the new plates weren't due out until the 1st of July, and I was five days early. So I asked the clerk for the new orange antique plates. The clerk interrupted me before I even had a chance to finish my request, and loudly stated that there was no such thing as an orange antique plate; they had the familiar black and white plates and that's what she was going to give me.

Within seconds of arriving at the window, I was made to feel small and ignorant. After my meek insistence that the new plates were indeed being offered, my surly public servant asked someone else in the office. The other employee was better informed and confirmed the new plates were coming, but I was a few days early. With no apology, my tormentor repeated that fact that they weren't available yet, in a defiant, victorious tone. Deciding to wait a few days for the orange plates I wanted, I told her to cancel any transactions she had started and I'd come back after July 1. I suggested that maybe she treat customers a bit less like dolts. I thought that might be the end of an unpleasant experience, but it wasn't.

I began walking towards the door, and as I did, I heard laughter from her direction. I turned to look, and she and her two clerk neighbors were looking at me while she laughed.

Yes, I know. The joke's on the taxpayer.

This incident made me think of what might be done to make the DMV more friendly. But then I realized it can't ever change. The "us-against-them", "customer is always wrong" attitude is part of the game. Look around -- the attitude is everywhere in government offices. The IRS ("seizure fever -- catch it" signs on employee bulletin boards); the Postal Service, the police department (the "blue wall of silence"), the school board (Goals 2000 instead of the 3 "R"'s) -- and the DMV.

As long as the "customer" is required by law to run through the state's bureaucratic hoops -- with jail or starvation the price for not doing so -- there is no way to change the culture. The nation fought a war over slavery in the last century, but now everyone is a slave to the bureaucratic machine. How did it happen?

The Libertarian idea that government services should be replaced by private sector alternatives is long overdue for a good look. There is no reason why your bank and insurance company can't take care of your car registration requirements, and even your driver's license needs (if you can't come up with insurance, they won't give you the driver's test, etc.). The access to records needed by the police for legitimate accident investigation and the like would still exist -- the data just wouldn't be collected by one archaic and unresponsive state agency.

When something proves itself inefficient, it's time to try something else. Abolishing the DMV is an idea whose time has come; the DMV's decades-long record proves it can't be reformed. It's time to replace it with a friendlier private-sector alternative.

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Marc Montoni is a Salem resident and directs daily operations of the Libertarian Party of Virginia.