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Californians, learn from my DMV fiasco in pursuit of your real Real ID

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The line stretches outside at the downtown Los Angeles DMV field office on Jan. 27.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles wants you to know it’s getting better every day. And it might be. But I’m here to tell you about a DMV encounter that was a fiasco in three acts.

And in coming months, my family’s troubles could become your troubles.

Last week, I took my teenager for her learner’s permit test. We had grabbed the first available appointment among DMV field offices near us, and wound up at the downtown Los Angeles office on Hope Street.

On the way, I counseled patience and calm. I knew that Gov. Gavin Newsom had put new people in charge of the agency after he took office last year, and I also knew that DMV offices statewide have seen a surge in activity because of federal “Real ID” requirements that oblige legions of California drivers to update their licenses by Oct. 1.

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So, I thought, heading downtown on Jan. 27, will we get the happy, new DMV experience or the sad, old one?

On arrival, we found a line snaking out the door. While we waited, word was passed that the office’s computer system, which handles just about everyone, whether you’re seeking a Real ID license, taking a test or whatever, had recently taken to crashing in the afternoons.

We tried not to worry and waited a couple of hours in relative calm. We weren’t wild about sitting on the floor but there were no open seats.

Then, as we neared the crucial clerk at last, came the afternoon crash. For scores of customers, the afternoon had been wasted. We had no choice but to return another day.

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As signs all around us announced, the point of the Real ID program is to get new, federally approved California driver’s licenses and ID cards into the hands of Californians before Oct. 1, when federal officials start requiring those new IDs (or a passport or military ID) of anyone boarding a flight or visiting a secured federal building.

Yes, you could use a passport as ID, but millions of people don’t have one.

The Real ID program, conceived more than a decade ago, has been postponed several times and marred by poor coordination between federal officials and California’s DMV, which started issuing the new fed-friendly licenses in early 2018.

The DMV says that 7 million Californians now have Real ID licenses — which may leave as many as 13 million to go. If you don’t get the new license, you could wind up in a mess at the airport.

For more details, have a look at the DMV FAQs. And here’s a checklist of documents you’ll need when you get to the DMV.

We made our second try three days after the first. And because the office makes no appointments after 3 p.m. and is closed on weekends, we once again had to leave school and work early. (Pro tip: You can check online to see real-time waiting times for individual DMV field offices.)

This time the place looked different. One staffer, in a valiant effort to keep the mood upbeat, had updated the decorations from a Happy New Year theme to Valentine’s Day. But as I admired his work, I saw that a few of the customers around us were the same people we’d stood in line with days before.

They weren’t any happier than we were. We sat on the floor some more, and heard more rumors of midafternoon computer crashes.

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“Strange,” one worker said. “Really strange.”

The vast majority of the DMV staffers, by the way, were kind and patient. And eventually our number came up. My daughter climbed the stairs, took the test, passed.

End of saga, right?

Wrong. Before the DMV staff could print out the necessary paperwork, the afternoon crash arrived. We waited close to an hour for a fix, then were given the word: Go home. Come back tomorrow.

My daughter didn’t want to miss part of yet another school day, so she asked the clerk if I could pick up the paperwork for her.

No.

So we came back a third time, early on Friday afternoon, and collected that vital piece of paper. If you add up the driving, parking, standing and sitting time for those three visits, I figure we invested eight hours each in the experience.

How many others lost comparable time? Was ours was the only DMV office having such trouble?

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I posed that question to Sacramento on the following Monday. Anita Gore, deputy director in the DMV’s Office of Public Affairs, replied by email that afternoon that the downtown L.A. office had computer system issues — “downtime, delays in service and inconvenience for customers” — intermittently through last week and Monday.

The DMV is working with the connectivity vendor on a short-term solution, Gore wrote, and has signed a pact with Comcast for greater bandwidth and connectivity statewide by late this year.

And there’s more. Gore also acknowledged that all 170 DMV offices suffered a system outage related to fingerprinting last week. This lasted up to 24 hours, depending on the location, before it was resolved.

Still, Gore pointed out, wait times are getting shorter overall. State officials report that between July 2018 and November 2019, the DMV statewide cut the average wait time without an appointment from 130 minutes to 33 minutes. They also say that DMV field offices — many of which didn’t take credit cards as recently as last year — will all accept them by the end of the year.

But on many days, the DMV is where productivity goes to die. Don’t talk to me about that sloth scene from “Zootopia.” Too soon.

How might you avoid this trouble? Hope to be lucky. And make better strategic use than I did of the DMV’s site-by-site online real-time waiting-time information.

Look closely and you see that some DMV field offices (Glendale and Inglewood, for instance) often have shorter waits for people without appointments than the busier offices (downtown L.A.) have for people with appointments.

In other words, you might be better off finding the DMV office most convenient for you, checking the hours, planning to be there before opening and bringing a snack and a well-charged phone.

But there’s no telling if that advice will hold as the Oct. 1 Real ID license deadline gets closer. Lines may grow. Plenty of things could go wrong.

Wherever you do it and however you do it, get that Real ID chore done soon, folks. This could be ugly.


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