It’s been a year since international student Vitalii Mikhailov first tried to take a driving test. Crystal Gaul’s son turned 16 in March but still hasn’t been able to get a learner’s permit. And Annee Doyle waited in line for six hours at an Oklahoma City tag agency in March to renew a license but the computer system crashed and she was told to go home.
Those are just a few of the experiences of unlucky Oklahoma residents who have tried in vain to get their driver’s licenses renewed, get a learner’s permit or take a driving test. The delays mean some people can’t verify their identity to pick up medicine from a pharmacy, do banking transactions, get into a bar or pick up a six-pack at a liquor store. Others are risking traffic fines and fees by driving with expired licenses.
Oklahoma’s driver’s license and testing system is in disarray, and there’s not a single reason for why. It’s the learning curve and outages of a new system to verify and process the long-delayed rollout of Real ID in Oklahoma. It’s the snowball effect of a year of temporary pandemic-related closures or diminished services at Department of Public Safety offices or privately run tag agencies across the state. It’s confusion for customers as they navigate delays and different websites for appointments, renewals or other online services.
Still, the problems aren’t as acute in some rural areas, forcing many from larger cities to drive across the state to take care of an essential government function.
To help clear the backlogs, the state plans to hold large driver’s license “megacenters” in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. They will be similar in function to what was offered last summer when the demand for unemployment help amid the coronavirus pandemic caused massive delays at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. Separately, the state will continue to work with both DPS and tag agents to fix the “pain points” in the process causing delays.
Oklahoma City resident Frank Merrick was finally able to get his Real ID at a tag agency in Fort Gibson two weeks ago, after months of fits and starts. Friends of Merrick in Oklahoma City have driven to Marlow, a two-hour round trip, to get their licenses renewed.
Merrick started getting his Real ID more than two months ago. He got up early and tried lining up at a tag agency in Edmond, only to be told they weren’t taking appointments and were limiting it to 10 walk-ins each day. He went back the next day but was 14th in line. He later got an appointment at a tag agency in south Oklahoma City, but it was two months away.
Earlier this month, Merrick gave his appointment to his wife, who also needed a Real ID card, and got his license from the Fort Gibson tag agency since he had meetings scheduled anyway in nearby Muskogee.
He blames Oklahoma lawmakers, who for years delayed the state’s implementation of Real ID after the federal government passed the law in 2005. Former Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill in 2017 rescinding a law from a decade earlier that forbid the state from complying with Real ID. At the time, lawmakers were worried about a federal registration system.
“I got on Medicare easier than I have done this,” said Merrick, who turned 65 this year. “It was an absolute piece of cake compared to this. You shouldn’t have to take off work to get your driver’s license renewed.”
The Department of Public Safety has spent about $20 million on Real ID, with the rollout starting last July. But the implementation has been marred by system slowdowns and delays for manual override requests by tag agencies that can only be handled by DPS employees. The slowdowns intensified in late January and continued into March. The vendor, Idemia, and the Office of Management and Enterprise Systems said most problems have since been fixed.
“According to our analysis, one contributor to the system’s sustained drag occurred when a high volume of reports were run,” said Matthew Thompson, Idemia’s senior vice president of civil identity for North America. “Every time this occurred, it put a strain on the system resulting in other programs backing up behind them. Idemia and OMES were able to migrate the reports to a secondary database, resulting in a marked improvement in the processing times.”
Tag Agents and Real ID
At the Yale Tag Agency, owner J.R. Thompson said learning a new system meant it was taking up to 30 minutes to process a Real ID last fall. He estimates those times are down about eight to 12 minutes if the customer has all the correct documents.
“It was a normal rollout. It had bumps, but for the most part, it wasn’t bad,” Thompson said, whose agency is about 20 miles east of Stillwater. “We now are not experiencing any issues. There were times in December, January, maybe November, where people left our office and they weren’t happy. As problems arise, DPS is doing their best to get them resolved as quickly as they can.”
Thompson said his tag agency is among the smaller ones. Tag agents, whose appointments are approved by the Oklahoma Tax Commission, can make more in fees on other types of transactions like titles and registrations. Those are typically quicker to process, meaning there’s a financial incentive for some tag agencies to put less of a priority on driver’s licenses or Real IDs.
“When it was taking 30 and 40 minutes to do those driver’s licenses, you’ve got to keep in mind from a tag agent standpoint that was stopping us from doing three or four title transactions where the fee structure is much better,” Thompson said. “We happen to be in a unique scenario where there’s rarely a wait, but we don’t get the benefits of those big deposits, either.
“I don’t blame the big agents, but at the same time, it does put the citizens at peril. I think most people have figured it out: just drive out to these smaller ones.”
Oklahoma and Louisiana are the only two states that use a blended model of services for driver’s licensing and vehicle registration. The tag agent system in Oklahoma dates to the 1930s to make sure essential motor vehicle services were available across the state. Tag agents were one of the last political patronage jobs, with senators choosing who got a franchise until about 12 years ago.
A study of the tag agency system last year by consultants Alvarez & Marsal found there was a wide variation in the financial viability of the businesses. Some agents rely on income from other lines of business to stay afloat, which others collect more than $1 million in fees each year. Tag agents were paid $53 million in fees in 2019, the study found.
Oklahoma was facing an October deadline for Real ID. But last month, the federal government delayed its enforcement of Real ID requirements until May 2023, which may help to cool the near-term demand for Real IDs. The Real ID Act established minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards. The cards will be needed to fly domestically within the United States and for access into federal buildings. The law does not create a federal database of driver license information, and states are still in control of their state license data.
Driving Test Delays
Besides driver’s licenses and Real ID, there are also delays for learner’s permits and driving tests. Crystal Gaul’s son, Michael, has been trying to get a learner’s permit since he turned 15½ last year. Gaul paid for driver’s education classes, but it isn’t required for 16-year-olds. Michael turned 16 in March.
“They tell you on their website to make an appointment, but there’s zero appointments,” Gaul said. “There’s no phone number, but if you finally do track down the phone number, nobody answers. So you just have to check online every day.”
Gaul said she was finally able to book an appointment for Michael, but it was eight weeks away in Idabel in far southeast Oklahoma, about 240 miles from Oklahoma City. To keep it, she’d have to take off work and possibly spend the night there for his driver’s test.
“People might think it’s trivial or unnecessary, but for a lot of people it’s very necessary,” Gaul said. “A lot of these kids have to work or they have sports. I work 12-hour shifts. My older son drives him around now but he’s leaving for college in August.”
After pressure from lawmakers earlier this year, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order to waive some requirements amid the slowdown. It lifted some restrictions on tag agents for renewing commercial driver’s licenses and allowed residents to get a downgraded, non-Real ID license if necessary. It also allowed third parties, like driving schools or CareerTechs, to administer the written driver’s license exams.
Gaul said Michael took the written exam at the Moore-Norman Technology Center, but that he still has to take the verification to the Department of Public Safety and get a vision exam. (A DPS spokeswoman verified that process.)
“It makes zero sense. It was another waste of money,” Gaul said. “We did that for what reason? We still can’t get into DPS. His peers are having the same problems. There’s a whole generation of kids who are having problems this year and last year, which I get, but they’ve got to figure it out now.
“If you want to be open and you want everyone to go to work and get off unemployment, then you need to let them be able to drive there please. It’s Oklahoma; we can’t walk anywhere because everything’s spread out and public transportation doesn’t work great. People are literally lining up early morning hours outside on the sidewalk just to have state ID, just to have transportation. It’s a basic need.”
University of Central Oklahoma international student Vitalii Mikhailov has been trying to take a driving test for almost a year. Mikhailov, an international business major from Russia, already has an international driver’s license, but an Oklahoma license would cut his auto insurance rates in half if he gets a car. He also has to carry his passport and international license with him to verify his identity.
“I have to carry my passport with me 24/7, and I don’t want to lose it,” Mikhailov said. “Without this passport, it would be complicated to go back to Russia.”
It took Mikhailov almost six months to get an appointment for a driving test, but the first available appointment was in Enid, a drive of about an hour and a half. He drove there earlier this year, took the written test, but then the computer system went down. He couldn’t do the driving test because the examiner had COVID-19 and there was only one employee in the office.
Mikhailov called several times without success to make an appointment, but then went online a couple of weeks ago and was finally able to make an appointment for July 8 in Edmond.
“I have to wait for another two months, but hopefully everything will be all right because I just have the driver’s test left,” he said. (Story continues after form)
‘Megacenters’ Coming to OKC, Tulsa
John Budd, chief operating officer in the Stitt administration, said the megacenters to increase capacity for Real IDs are a high priority for DPS.
“Real ID is a labor-intensive process,” Budd said. “Once the applicant is in front of an agent, it takes about 15 minutes to complete that transaction. That is largely due to requirements that are handed down by the federal government around which documents have to be provided and how they need to be scanned in.
“Clearly capacity is one part of the issue. But the other part is, ‘Is the process itself broken?’” Budd said. “The pandemic largely created a lot of the backlog, but the pandemic didn’t create the process issues.”
Even before Real ID, it was well known that wait times for driver’s licenses were longer than they should be, Budd said. In the last month, DPS representatives and tag agents have been meeting at the Capitol to fix the process. That could include eliminating work steps, redeploying labor or possibly changing requirements.
“We’re interviewing Oklahomans who have gone through the process, observing tag agents, observing people at DPS and really trying to figure out all the ways the process itself is broken,” Budd said. “If we can fix the process, we can unlock further capacity.”
Meanwhile, the Legislature last week approved Senate Bill 1057, which allows customers to get a new eight-year license or ID card in addition to the standard four-year ones. The fees are doubled for the eight-year versions. Stitt signed the bill on Monday.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017. He covers state agencies and public health. Call or text him at (571) 319-3289 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pmonies.