Plagued by long lines last summer, DMV has a plan to shorten them this year

Summer is the busiest time of year at the Division of Motor Vehicles, and last summer the lines were particularly long, with people routinely waiting two hours or more to get served at some offices.

This summer, the DMV wants to do better, and has come up with several strategies it will roll out in the coming days and weeks. They aim not only to make the agency more efficient but also change its culture to one that gives local managers more freedom and tools to encourage employees to do better.

Customers will notice some of the changes, such as expanded hours and a greater emphasis on appointments. Starting this weekend, the Raleigh office on Avent Ferry Road will be open from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, and the Garner office will be open those same hours for transactions that don’t require a driving or written skills test.

Other changes may be invisible to the public but should, says DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup, help reduce wait times at driver’s license offices.

Underpinning the strategy will be data that DMV will collect and regularly review on not only wait times but how long it takes driver’s license examiners to perform various types of transactions with customers.

“What we have is the beginning of a road map for how we look at how we do what we do,” Jessup said in an interview. “We’ll be using data to drive our decision-making, looking at that data on a regular basis — daily, weekly — to make sure that we understand how efficient we are and where we need to improve.”

The need to improve is obvious to most anyone who had business with the DMV in the Triangle last summer. Lines began forming before sunrise at some offices and snaked outside buildings most of the day, to the point that DMV began seeking volunteers to hand out bottles of water to waiting customers.

Jessup said some of the logjam was caused by REAL ID, a new form of driver’s license that meets federal identification standards taking effect Oct. 1, 2020, and that requires customers to appear at a DMV office in person with several types of documents. REAL ID customers added to the usual summer swell of high school students seeking their first licenses and recent college graduates and families moving to the state.

DMV paid a consulting firm nearly $2.9 million to help develop its new approach. It was tested at some offices this spring and will be put in place this summer at 29 of DMV’s 113 offices, including ones in Carrboro, Cary, Durham, Fuquay-Varina, Hillsborough and Raleigh.

“These are the top offices where we’ve seen the most volume and some smaller offices where we just know that we needed to make adjustments,” Jessup said.

‘A new mindset’

The aim is to better manage the peaks in traffic at DMV offices, by steering customers to less busy times or even less busy offices. If the wait time at a particular office has reached 45 minutes, for example, managers there will begin offering customers an appointment to come back within 5 to 7 days, at which time they’ll be able to go to the front of the line.

“It’s a new mindset,” said Mike Newsome, deputy district manager of driver’s license offices in an area that includes Durham and Wake counties. “We are empowering managers more.”

That includes letting them manage their employees, rather than simply jumping on a terminal and handling customers themselves, Newsome said. The thinking is that actively managing driver’s license examiners, to review their performance and point out where they could do better, will do more to improve efficiency in the long run.

Each driver’s license examiner will receive a scorecard of their performance each week, showing how many transactions they did, how long they took on average and how those numbers compare to benchmarks set for each office. Jessup said DMV has traditionally done these kinds of reviews only when an examiner was obviously falling short.

“So the change here is that as opposed to using that data to say that you’re performing poorly, we’re using data to say, ‘How can we help you to improve?’” he said. “And our employees, when they see their own scorecard on a weekly basis, are self-correcting. That’s a morale change. That’s a culture change.”

Jessup said DMV tested the scorecards by using them this spring in a competition between four driver’s license offices, including North Raleigh and Fuquay-Varina. Overall performance at the offices improved, with transactions taking less time and average wait times falling by 50 percent to 30 minutes.

“Now let’s be clear about this: These pilots took place outside of peak season,” he said. “But this is not something that we’re guessing at. We’re using data to drive our behavior and make decisions. So we know it’s possible.”

More appointments

Another key to DMV’s strategy will be to encourage more people to make an appointment at their driver’s license office rather than just showing up. People with appointments go to the front of the line, but only between 7 and 10 percent of DMV customers make one. Jessup says he’d like to increase that number so that half of people have appointments.

DMV will promote appointments through a variety of ways, including its website, drivers ed instructors and flyers in renewal notices, said Greer Beaty, deputy secretary for communications at the N.C. Department of Transportation.

DMV also will work to discourage people from getting a REAL ID in the summer if they can wait until after Labor Day. The agency hosted eight REAL ID “Express Days” around the state this spring, including two in Raleigh, to get people in and out quicker, and it plans to resume them in the fall.

The state has issued 1.14 million REAL IDs since they became available in May 2017. At one point, DMV expected as many as 4 million North Carolinians would want one by the time the new federal identification requirements go into effect in October 2020, when people will need either a passport or a REAL ID to board a domestic flight in the U.S.

Jessup says demand for REAL ID has remained steady and that he expects it to increase as the fall of 2020 approaches. He said DMV’s message to customers about how to get a REAL ID must also emphasize when they should get one.

“Our conversation with the public about REAL ID has to be a lot more specific,” he said. “Not everybody needs one, and everybody definitely doesn’t need one today.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.