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March 8-14, 2006

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People in Line

Car Culture

Line Slave

Can a machine read your proof of insurance? Or detect if your documents are fraudulent?

By Novella Carpenter


LAST WEEK, first day of the month: me, at the DMV. What was I thinking? The line snaked dangerously out the door and around the corner. People were even standing in the middle of a grove of eucalyptus for God's sake. But it was the 1st, and besides saying "rabbit rabbit," the beginning of a month is also a time to get your expired tabs taken care of.

Tabs are necessary in my attempt to never get pulled over. But I dread going to the DMV. I don't know how to do this online, and I needed to drive. A lady in a purple T-shirt handed me a purple sheet of paper. I could see the door of the DMV, about a mile up ahead. "Help us make these lines shorter!" the paper read. Tell me more. The purple sheet and the ladies are part of the Local 1000, SEIU, the largest state-worker union.

A man standing in front of me grumbled as he read the sheet. "They probably make more than me." It's an old saw: state workers make a lot of money. After my interminable wait in line, I later spoke with Jodee Smith, the southeast area coordinator of the Local 1000, about just this concern.

"It's a public misperception," she said, "but the fact is, state workers make less than comparable jobs in the private sector." Smith gave me the range of monthly wages for DMV workers—it works out to $13 an hour for starting, and $18 per hour for the most senior positions. Small potatoes. In fact, I've worked a number of crappy jobs in California, and always got paid more than that. No wonder I've noticed the employees are almost always women (women still earn less than their male counterparts) and no wonder they're in such bad moods!

On that point, Smith agreed, telling me that in the last five years 243 positions have been lost at the DMV. That is, when people quit or were fired, the state never replaced the workers. At the same time, California grew by 2 million drivers. This means more work crammed into a day for each employee, which results in the classic short-tempered, hurried, stressed-out DMV worker. Then this leads to a bad public image, and people like me dreading a trip to the DMV. Fewer workers also translates to more time in line. According to Smith, the wait at the DMV has doubled from 40 minutes to 80 minutes on average.

"You know what they really should do?" the fella in front of me said. I got out my pen. "They should automate all of this. I mean, they can use those retinal scanners and hand scanners. It'd be so much quicker." Mmm, and so much easier for someone to get a driver's license, rent a truck and blow up some national monument. Can a machine read your proof of insurance? Or detect if your documents are fraudulent?

Workers have such an easy job, the logic goes, we can just use a robot to replace them. But what many people don't understand is the workers have to actually think. They must know about new laws (just last year there were 14 new ones related to the DMV) and apply them; for example, the new teen driving rules, or laws regarding commercial trucking—employees have to issue the appropriate licenses in each different case.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of self-serve lines in the grocery store or the post office—but at the DMV? I don't think so. You can do some things online like address changes, making appointments, requesting copies of forms. And the state is motivated to modernize as much as possible. In fact, the 6 percent increase in DMV spending Schwarzenegger is proposing will all go toward "modernizing," in addition to building maintenance.

But nothing about hiring more DMV workers. These positions are not just people manning the windows but also Public Driver Safety Officers. Have you ever wondered who monitors the elderly and sick drivers? In the past, with more employees, the DMV investigated high-risk drivers, people with medical restrictions like Alzheimer's. However, the number of investigations, because of the worker shortage, is on the decline. Until something changes, I'll just stay here, in line.


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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.