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Making a Mess of a Good Idea

The mandatory appointment system that was begun nine months ago by the California Department of Motor Vehicles was supposed to eliminate the long lines that were routine at DMV field offices. Instead, it exacerbated the problem, compounding long waits in line with long waits on the telephone by drivers or would-be drivers trying to make appointments.

The appointment system was designed to coincide with the agency’s changeover to a computer system. Problems began because telephone equipment at DMV field offices proved inadequate to the volume of incoming calls. The result was a growing backlog of business, recently estimated at 200,000 transactions.

It would be satisfying to report that customer complaints forced DMV officials to abandon the experiment, but it is likely that financial losses really prodded them to act. In a March memo to Gov. George Deukmejian’s office, DMV Director George Meese admitted that the agency’s backlog had resulted in an estimated loss to the state of $16 million in uncollected vehicle fees, fines and interest.

When Meese announced on Wednesday that his agency was returning to the old system of serving walk-in customers on a first-come, first-served basis, he tried to put the best face on the decision. He said that the department would also retain the new appointment system for motorists who want to use it. We don’t expect many people to take him up on that offer. The new system was billed as a noble experiment when it began, but anyone who spent days, even weeks, on the phone trying to make a DMV appointment knows that it ended as a disaster.

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