May 5, 2014

Road Worrier: NC DMV is getting better, but it’s not fixed yet

DMV has improved service with Saturday morning office hours and other changes, and it plans two-day customer-training classes for 2,100 workers who deal with drivers and car owners across the state. But customers still complain about online glitches and long lines.

When he campaigned for office, and again after he was elected, Gov. Pat McCrory promised to “fix DMV.”

Fix what, exactly? Well, there really was no need to spell it out. Just as they knew what those unloved initials stood for, many North Carolinians knew what they didn’t like about the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Now, a few months into their second year on the job, McCrory and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata have made a good start at fixing DMV and how it serves drivers and car owners.

Let’s hope they keep up that momentum. They still have plenty of work to do with DMV workers who meet the public in person and on the phone.

“They were not very understanding when I tried to tell them what the situation was,” Bela Horvath, 78, of Bahama, told the Road Worrier. DMV had ordered him to turn in his license tags after mistakenly concluding that his car insurer was not licensed in North Carolina. It took weeks of phone calls and letters to clear up the error.

“They were really not very polite,” Horvath said. “I was kind of frustrated that they didn’t try to help.”

Critics say McCrory administration regulators go astray when they confuse polluters with “customers.” But in state government, there’s no more fitting place than DMV to apply the governor’s call for better “customer service.”

McCrory and Tata flew to Mecklenburg County last week to show off DMV’s $6.7 million “flagship” office in Huntersville.

It’s a handsome building, one of only two places in the state where you can renew your driver’s license and car registration under the same roof. McCrory wants more DMV outposts to emulate the Huntersville office, but he’s not planning a new wave of state spending to speed this along.

The Huntersville office features customer-friendly upgrades that already have been introduced at some of the state’s busiest driver license offices.

North Raleigh and Cary are two of 19 offices with expanded evening and Saturday morning hours – and this is surely DMV’s most-appreciated improvement in years. They also have front-desk greeters, free Wi-Fi and computer stations where you can fetch documents you might need to prove your residence or insurance coverage. DMV says it has cut waiting times in half at these two Wake County offices.

These improvements are being extended gradually to other offices, and further changes are in the works.

As of this month, DMV has cut by about 20 percent the number of drivers required to take a 25-question written test on North Carolina driving laws and rules of the road.

Now, if you’re one of more than 300,000 people who move to North Carolina each year with a valid license from another state, you’ll take only the road signs and vision tests. Otherwise, it’s mostly just first-time drivers who still will take the written test.

DMV has redesigned its website ( so it works on smartphones. And the agency is putting more of its services online.

Starting sometime next year, many North Carolinians will have the option to renew their driver’s licenses online. Not every time your renewal comes due – every five years for folks younger than 18 or older than 65, and each eight years for the rest of us – but every OTHER time you renew it.

That means most folks will have to visit the driver’s license office only once every 16 years to get a new photo and take the vision and signs tests.

Also starting in the next year or two, you’ll be able to do your online DMV business at free-standing kiosks planned for small towns and shopping malls.

Helpful and empathetic

Meanwhile, DMV is putting about 2,100 workers – including private contractors who work at license tag agencies – through a two-day training course in better customer service.

Asked once, twice and finally a third time, DMV spokeswoman Marge Howell was unable to think of any examples of bad customer service that her agency wants to make good with this new employee training.

“We want them to know, when they talk to a customer, that they are being as helpful and as empathetic as they can be,” Howell said. “I think DMV employees on the whole are wonderful dealing with customers.”

Let’s hope the new class includes a reminder that license examiners should not blame customers when their brittle licenses peel and break into pieces.

And let’s hope top agency officials learn to be more forthcoming about occasional problems that give DMV its bad name and cause undue hardship for its customers.

DMV never warned car owners about a computer software failure that snarled vehicle registration renewals for months last year – and still appears this week to be a problem for some customers. Car owners are supposed to be able to renew their registrations within minutes after getting the cars inspected, but DMV’s database lost the inspection records for as many as 30,000 cars a month.

That meant DMV’s online renewal system was no longer so reliable. That meant extra long lines at local license tag offices, where car owners sometimes were given bad information.

“They never owned up”

Cynthia Denton brought her inspection receipt to the Wake Forest tag office. She stood in line for an hour. Then she waited another 20 minutes while the desk worker telephoned someone in Raleigh to update her inspection record in the DMV database.

“They were sending some people back to the stations where they got their cars inspected, telling them the stations had done something wrong,” said Denton, 64. “They never owned up to the fact that it was the DMV system itself.”

DMV’s online renewal page still displayed a red-letter apology Monday to car owners unable to pay their fees and car taxes online. They were asked to call DMV (877-421-0020) or take their inspection receipts to a local license tag office.

That’s not an option for Lloyd Scher, 63, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner and one of two Charlotte car owners who said Monday they were unable to renew their registrations online.

He said his car was inspected 10 days ago, and he has tried since then to renew his online. He can’t go to the DMV tag office because of health problems that limit his endurance.

“The last time I went to the DMV office, I waited in line for four hours, and I was in pain that night,” Scher said. “This whole new system is not working for citizens in North Carolina.”

Howell said the inspection and registration system “is working well now,” and the red-letter notice is still posted in case of occasional problems. “The system can have connectivity problems based on weather conditions or the time of day,” she said.

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