For generations, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has been a crucible of nerves for teens anxious to complete the rite of passage that is a first driver’s license, older residents hoping to keep theirs and most everyone in between.
Never a day at the beach, with sometimes cartoonishly long lines, a visit to one of its offices has nevertheless been essential.
Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency is rethinking the way it operates.
In an effort to keep people from getting infected with or spreading the coronavirus, the department since March has expanded its DMV Express program statewide to speed up the Real ID process and allowed for vehicle title transfers, registrations, duplicate driver’s licenses and driver’s license renewals and other services to be completed online.
Online transactions went from about 1.8 million in July 2019 to nearly 2.2 million last month.
“COVID was the impetus for us to speed up that process,” DMV spokeswoman Anita Gore said. “We’re doing everything we can to push people out of the field offices, to keep everybody safe.”
How it all works out remains to be seen. The effectiveness of some changes may be hard to clearly gauge until after the agency works through the backlog caused by a six-week shutdown of DMV offices to the public. In fact, the pandemic may have to subside before many of the changes fully take.
On a recent Thursday, a long line formed outside one DMV office in Westminster. The first person had arrived at 3 a.m.
An hour and a half before the office opened at 8 a.m, 77 people waited. Some camped out in lawn chairs; others spread blankets on the concrete and worked on crossword puzzles as ’80s band UB40’s cover of “Red Red Wine” played over the loudspeakers.
But making the line longer were people who either didn’t need to be there or could have started their paperwork online. They included a woman who arrived two hours before the office opened to get a Real ID, but who hadn’t uploaded her documents ahead of time for an express checkout, and a 79-year-old man who had arrived at 5 a.m. to replace a lost driver’s license — something he could have done from home.
Erin Volz watched as a DMV employee directed a man — who smiled and thanked him — to the back of the line.
“Well, he’s cheerful,” Volz said as she waited at the front of the appointment line to get her Real ID. Volz had been able to go online and upload all her documents ahead of time. As she looked at the growing line, she felt relieved.
“With everything going on,” she said, “I don’t want to be too close and around too many people.”
The DMV closed its more than 160 field offices to the public March 27 after workers expressed concern about the spread of COVID-19. At least 41 DMV employees reportedly contracted the coronavirus.
The shutdown forced the department to reschedule over a million appointments.
When offices reopened in June, it was with new health and safety protocols.
“Six feet, everyone on the tape mark for me please,” a worker reminded customers in front of the DMV.
There were so many lines marked with tape that it felt like admission to an amusement park — red for appointments, pink for the kiosk machines, blue for driver’s licenses and yellow for registration.
Varissa Lopez directed customers into lines and into the building when seats opened up in the waiting area. The office limited the number of people allowed in and spaced blue chairs six feet apart.
Lopez, who has worked at the DMV for around 11 months, called it “organized chaos.”
“We’re really trying to invent new ways to serve the public,” she said. “The whole stereotype is that DMV employees don’t care about the public, but we care a lot.”
A room previously used for storage had been converted into an applications room to help speed up the process before a customer reached a window. Workers outside checked customers in, reviewed their documents and offered to take down their number so the department could tell them their place in the virtual queue.
“Before, you walked in the door and got a number,” Lopez said. “You might be waiting two hours, and when you get to the window you don’t have everything — you wasted your day.”
Some DMV employees wore face shields and wiped down counters after each customer. On this Thursday, they served over 700 people.
When Lopez stands at a window, she directs each person to wait on a sticker six feet from her counter. After she calls them forward, she steps back. And when they step back to the sticker, she moves forward.
“We call it the DMV dance,” Lopez said with a laugh.
The DMV’s Virtual Field Office has allowed employees to still serve customers — but online. As of earlier this month, representatives had helped over 500,000 customers that way.
Despite the shift, some services still needed to be done at a DMV office.
Bryce Hadfield, 16, was there to get his learner’s permit. After his original appointment was canceled, the department rescheduled it for July at the Costa Mesa DMV. He and his father, Lee, arrived to find the office chain-linked off.
“I don’t understand why they would make an appointment somewhere that’s closed. They know it’s closed; it’s the DMV,” he said before he paused for a second to think. “Well, it’s the DMV, so maybe they don’t know.”
After waiting over three hours for his son to take the test, Lee questioned why it couldn’t be administered online.
“Any experience I’ve ever had with the DMV, rarely is it a pleasant one,” he said.
Perhaps the most visible change at field offices is the behind-the-wheel drive test.
Victoria Pluma waited in her car as an employee placed a floor mat inside her family’s blue Toyota Highlander and cocooned the passenger seat in a shell of plastic.
Her test had been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis, along with those of almost 300,000 other Californians.
“Since they rescheduled everything it was really scary for me,” Pluma said. “I really need to pass this time.”
Less than 10 minutes after pulling away from the curb, Pluma’s examiner had tallied up her score and delivered the bad news. She would not be getting her driver’s license today. She tried to console the crestfallen young woman.
“You’ve got a lot of time left on your permit,” the examiner said.
That same morning, it was Alexandra Martinez’s turn. DMV employee Maria “Delia” Broughton did the honors, making sure the car was as safe as possible for the close-contact ride she and the 19-year-old Martinez were about to take. Broughton wore a white mask and a smock that reached down to her knees.
Martinez said she had gotten plenty of practice after her April driving test was canceled. But that didn’t stop her dad — outfitted in a face shield — from praying for a passing result.
Considering the up to 20 tests she administers a day, Broughton said she tries to reduce the amount of time she spends in a car with people.
“You’re hopping from car to car,” the 12-year DMV veteran said. “You try to keep the applicant safe as well.”
Minutes after driving away from the DMV office, Martinez steered her car back to the lot. Broughton stepped out to tally the young woman’s errors. She had made a few: Not looking over her shoulder for a lane change or stopping neatly behind the line at a stop light were just two.
Broughton told Martinez how many errors she committed before declaring: “That’s a passing score…. Congratulations.”
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.