Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said he’s re-examining how often Tennesseans should be required to subject themselves to the anguish and aggravation of visiting a state motor vehicle office.
In fact, Gibbons, whose office oversees drivers license facilities, said he’s even trying to figure out ways to ease the misery of what often seems a nearly intolerable, inescapable encounter with the bureaucratic machinations of state government.
Gibbons and his staff are currently engaged in a “top-to-bottom review” of drivers license examination processes and renewal centers with an eye toward transforming them into “customer-friendly” hubs that get people in and out before they noticeably age or descend irreversibly into madness.
The average wait time across the state is 55 minutes, says Gibbons, but that doesn’t even count the hours it takes to stand in lines that sometimes wrap outside the building and leave people in the sweltering heat for hours before reaching the first kiosk to take a number.
In brainstorming ideas to help shorten up the wait to about 30 minutes, Gibbons said he’s considering whether to give more time between drivers license renewals.
He said he’s looking into Arizona, for example, where drivers only need a new photo and an eye exam once every 12 years.
The downside to that specific system is the state has a harder time keeping track of drivers’ mailing addresses since they don’t need a new ID every time they move, according to Harold Sanders, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation. It also means drivers aren’t held accountable for staying up to snuff with the rules of the road since they aren’t subjected to driving tests every few years.
The upside, he said, is it motivates people to drive safely, shortens lines at the driver’s license facilities, and saves the state, and drivers, money.
Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Tracy said he, too, is looking at that practice but is leaning towards a more modest version of the concept.
“We’re definitely looking at it, and we need to make sure it’s done correctly,” said Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “It entirely takes too long right now to get your driver’s license. We’re trying to make it more customer-friendly.”
He is looking into a Democratic proposal that died in committee last year that would have changed the five-year renewal period to every eight years.
About 1.4 million people wait in lines at their local driver’s license center each year. In Memphis, officials recently had to set up tents and hand out water bottles due to the steamy temperatures.
“Everyone has a driver’s license story,” Gov. Bill Haslam told the Legislature in his first State of the State address last March. He then challenged Gibbons to make the driver’s license offices operate more like a business since the visits serve as many taxpayers’ primary interaction with the state.
The long lines raise questions as to whether the state is equipped to handle a new law that requires people to have some form of government-issued ID to vote. About 130,000 voting Tennesseans will need to get a driver’s license or some form of ID before Election Day, Gibbons said.
“We’re talking, for some people, hours and hours and hours and for some people even days of jumping through hoops,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, which fought the new ID law. “Voting should not be this difficult.”
Gibbons said officials expect to put those people who are seeking a state ID for voting purposes into express lines.
The commissioner said he’s not worried that multiple-hour wait times will trigger a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects against discriminating voting practices.
The long lines are “not in any way limited to communities with a minority population,” said Gibbons, formerly Shelby County’s Attorney General, adding he’s aware there’s been an inquiry with the U.S. Justice Department by Memphis Congressman Steven Cohen into the state’s driver’s license system. Gibbons said wait times are long in metro areas, like parts of Memphis and Nashville, and in more rural areas, like Cookeville and Johnson City.
The commissioner has a few other ideas up his sleeve for driver’s services overhauls, but he said the department won’t have a firm plan of action to reform the drivers license centers until it finishes its top-to-bottom review in early October. Reforms could include:
- Sending drivers who are reinstating suspended licenses to separate facilities. The most time-consuming task at the driver’s license center is reinstating licenses that were taken away, such as those suspended for a DUI. It takes about 30 minutes to actually process that transaction — not including the time waiting in line. Gibbons plans to designate as many as six offices as reinstatement centers and require those drivers to take their business there, which he says will shorten lines at the other facilities.
- Better encouragement for people to renew licenses online. Drivers simply renewing their license can do so online, but many still do it in person. To help, the department plans to install electronic kiosks that take photos and issue licenses at the stations. The state already has federal homeland security money set aside for the machines, Gibbons said.
- Providing driver’s license renewal services at county clerk offices and private entities. Gibbons has inked deals with 30 clerks to open up driver’s license services there. He says he hopes at least another 20 clerks — adding up to half of the state’s counties — will join the bandwagon. He said he’s still working on getting private entities involved.
- Consolidating service centers. Of the 49 driver’s license facilities, the department plans to ditch the ones that are underutilized or poorly designed. This will move employees around, better staff centers that need more workers and save the state money, Gibbons said.
- Standardizing centers’ hours of operation. Beginning Aug. 15, all offices will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
- Hiring someone to manage driver’s services. Gibbons and Gov. Bill Haslam expect to announce a new assistant commissioner of driver’s services position in the next few weeks. “We’ve never had that one person overseeing the entire operation. I’m not sure why that’s been the case. We’d like to fix that.”