Mindless Rule-Driven Bureaucracy In Action

Blogger Megan McArdle has a problem. 16 years ago, in college at the age of 19, she was caught drinking underage in a bar in Pennsylvania, arrested, and convicted. At the time, she was a college student, without a driver’s license, and thus had no license to suspend. Since then, she’s gone on to live a productive and meaningful life.

But her past has caught up with her…

While consuming my one (1) beer, I was apprehended by agents of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. They called my parents, fined me, and made me attend a class on the horrors of underaged drinking (did you realize that drinking can lead to uncontrollable vomiting?) It was during that class, with the errors of my ways now readily apparent, that I made a pledge to myself to quit underaged drinking with all due speed. And on January 29th, 1994, I honored that pledge.

I thought I had put all this behind me. Indeed, I was so informed, when I completed my State of Pennsylvania Mandatory Alcohol Education Class; provided I didn’t reoffend, they said, the record would be expunged. We might consider the matter closed, and never speak of it again. With time, and perhaps a name change and a relocation to a town across the country, I might hope to live down my shame and become a contributing member of society once again.

Alas, they never told the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that it was over. And thus, it is not over. I went to apply for a District of Columbia driver’s license this morning, only to be informed that I cannot, because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania wants to suspend my driver’s license.

The problem, you see, is that at the time of my conviction, I did not have a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Driver’s License. Indeed, I had no driver’s license at all, being one of those benighted city people who get their first driver’s license at the age of 23. The laws of the State of Pennsylvania, however, say that the Department of Transportation is entitled to suspend the driver’s license of anyone arrested for underaged drinking. And the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is, apparently, determined to exercise this privilege. Thus, the spectacle of a 35 year old woman being informed that she is about to have her driver’s license suspended for underaged drinking.

I’d love to offer some witty, snarky barb on this, but having knowledge of the soul-sucking bureaucracy that is the DMV, I can only offer my condolences.

A few months ago, I ordered personalized license plates for my wife. She’s starting a new business, and the plates have the name of the business. The ordering process was pretty simple, a small fee, and the knowledge that we’d have to wait 6-8 weeks for them to be delivered to the local DMV office for pick-up.

Then the fun began. We received the notice that the plates had arrived. My wife went to go pick them up. This should be a simple swap, as they’re already paid for and all she needs to do is remove the old plates (which I’d done for her the evening before), and hand them to a clerk for the new ones, which I planned to affix that evening when I got home from the office. So she grabbed our toddler son, stood in line, got her number, waited for her number to be called, and was then informed that she couldn’t pick up the plates… The owner of the car (me) had to be the one to do that. Well, some pleading [and crying] later, the lady behind the counter relented and was willing to offer the plates.

That’s when it got bad. My wife, unbeknownst to me, had allowed the insurance on her car to lapse. That puts us in violation of California law. Okay, mea culpa on that one— not that I care about violations of California law, as I could give two shits about their laws— because I don’t want the risk of my wife and child driving around uninsured. So they give my wife the plates (without registration sticker), along with a piece of paper saying the registration is suspended.

Now it’s crunch time. Given that my wife has a business to create, I decided I had better take over the insurance. So I immediately (within minutes of getting off the phone with her) add her car to my policy, obtain the proof of insurance document, and realize I’m going to need to burn my lunch hour the next day to straighten this out.

I have the documentation from the insurance company, picked up the documents my wife received from the DMV, I’m the owner of the car, and although I’ll have personal issues with paying any fees due to reinstating the registration, the fee is low enough that I’m not going to get worked up over it. Given that the DMV is the responsible organization, and they’re absolutely useless to deal with online, I figure that the best place to get this fixed is at the DMV itself. I have all my ducks in a row, they’re the party I must grovel before to appease the bureaucrats, and so over there I head…

After waiting in line, getting a claim check, waiting in a seat for my number in called, then waiting in line again at the window that was supposedly open, I’m informed that I cannot straighten this out at the DMV. Why would I think that I could do something like this at the DMV office? After all, it says clearly on the paperwork that my wife gave me that I should be calling the “California Vehicle Registration Financial Responsibility Program” to handle this.

I guess the DMV isn’t capable of conducting DMV work; they need an additional bureaucracy that is only available by phone in order to do their jobs. So I have to call them on the phone, only to find out that my insurance company has already informed them of my new insurance. Yet, I need to pay $14 over the phone to reinstate the registration, and then all is well.

Or not quite well. They can’t send me my tags through the mail. That would be too easy. Thus, I need to go back to the DMV (at least 72 hours after calling them, since apparently the DMV’s computer systems are 35 years old and just that slow) in order pick up the tags. Do I chance sending my wife to pick up the tags, since she doesn’t have a job requiring she be there from 8 to 5 every day? Not at all, because I’m the registered owner. Do I go to the CA DMV myself? Well, that’s difficult to do when I’m in the middle of three straight weeks of business travel, and typing this from a hotel room in Minneapolis.

So my wife has a properly-registered, properly-insured car, which is probably in violation of about 10 laws for her to be operating because it doesn’t have the pretty little sticker on the plates. I can only imagine what will happen if she’s pulled over in between now and the time I can get to the DMV, and the hell of hells that will cause.

Granted, I’m not facing the same license suspension as Megan McArdle. Her situation is both more ludicrous and more intrusive. But one must ask oneself– in exchange for all these hoops to jump through, all this paperwork one must compile, and the constant dealings with surly DMV employees who don’t give a crap whether they do their job well, has this made California’s roads any safer? No, it has not.

  • jwh

    yea, but are more illegal aliens now registered to vote in California? hmmmmmmm

  • LBest

    This is a perfect example of why the government should not handle damn near anything. This is the kind of stuff I bring up when others talk of national health care. Hell the DMV is to hard to do correctly.