Crony Capitalism

Amateur-Hour Crony Capitalism at the D.C. DMV

How D.C.'s DMV extorts drivers.


Like all state motor vehicle departments, D.C. requires residents seeking a driver license to take a written test and a driving test. The written test is what you'd expect. The driving test, as I learned this week, is a scam.

This past Monday, I called the D.C. DMV to confirm my Thursday driving test and to ask for some clarity on the type of car I could use. The DMV, understandably, does not provide vehicles for testing. But they have to really like yours. It needs to bear up-to-date inspection stickers and have an emergency hand brake between the front seats; all the windows have to work and you can't have any lit service lights on your dashboard. If your car fails any of these criteria, you can't use it for your road test.

When I told the DMV clerk I couldn't find both a car that met the criteria and a friend who could go with me to the DMV, he suggested I rent a car from the "parking lot guys."

Turns out these parking lot guys caused something of a scandal back in the early 2000s, when D.C. car owners complained to the city that DMV examiners were rejecting their perfectly good vehicles and encouraging them to rent from folks in the parking lot, who also seemed to have full run of the DMV testing center. An investigation ensued, but whatever came of it, the parking lot rentals are still plentiful and people are still being told that the cars they own and are legally allowed to drive in D.C. can't be used in a D.C. driving test due to dumb shit like the check engine light being on and the emergency brake being on the driver's side.

I wasn't too keen on renting from the parking lot guys, particularly after reading that piece. So I asked the DMV clerk to reschedule me for later in the month. The next available date? June 21. (When I called on February 10 about taking the driving test, the earliest date was April 14.)

Rather than wait five months after passing my written test to take my driving test, I found one of the parking lot companies online and scheduled a driver to meet me at the testing center on Thursday morning. My rental was $60 for the first hour. For twice that, he'd pick me up at my apartment. I opted for an Uber.

Coincidentally, the Uber driver who took me to the DMV testing center had a service light going on his dashboard. His car was clean and ran perfectly, and I felt incredibly safe while he drove it, but I could not resist informing him that the DMV would not accept his vehicle. This did not sit well with him. He was a Honda quality control manager for 14 years and would never drive a dangerous car. His check-engine light was only on because he replaced a tail light without detaching and reattaching the car battery.

When I arrived at the testing center, I saw six or seven guys standing next to Japanese sedans with magnetic driving school stickers slapped on the doors. Most of the cars in the parking lot were available to rent for the driving test. Very few of their rides looked safer or better maintained than the cars my friends own. I found my car and introduced myself to the driver, who slipped me a neatly folded stack of papers clipped to his license, which I was to give "to the people inside."

The clerk accepted this paperwork absent the actual driver, charged me $10 for the road test, and then told me to go sit in whatever car I was using and wait for an examiner. When the examiner arrived, we drove an easy 10-minute loop through the neighborhood, during which I never had to parallel park or even turn around. At the end of the loop, I parked the car nose-first in an empty spot at the testing center, filled out a final form, and paid $47 to the DMV for my license, which will arrive in the mail.

Everybody was nice and the process was quicker than I anticipated, but this is a scam.

When the FBI and the D.C. Inspector General investigated the D.C. DMV testing center in 2001, they did so, according to The Washington Post, to verify "whether employees of the Department of Motor Vehicles reject the vehicles of customers seeking driving tests and improperly steer them to private businesses that rent cars on the spot for $30." The DMV not only still does that, it does that in advance. While I get the sense that the clerk I spoke to over the phone was trying to be helpful, it would be more helpful if D.C. hadn't needlessly imposed regulations narrowly limiting what kind of car could be used in a driving test.

These are not petty grievances.

D.C. has exactly one testing center for 700,000 residents, which is why there's a multi-month gap between when you take your written test and when you can complete your driving test (and no, you cannot schedule the driving test before you've passed your written test). That's absurd.

The check engine light, meanwhile, is one of the dumbest smart features of modern cars and a poor indicator of vehicle safety. That light could mean you need to replace a fuse or a sensor or a bulb, that you already replaced one of those things, or that your car is about to die. But because manufacturers give us only enough information to get us into a dealership, the only way to know exactly what needs checking is to fork over several hundred bucks (or more) to a mechanic or drive around and see what happens. Enough people have done the latter for all of us to know that we are not in imminent danger when riding in a car with an illuminated "check engine" light.

There's a reason people cite their DMV when they knock government. The normal complaint is that the lack of competition allows agencies to treat taxpayers like captives, with long wait times, redundant paperwork, inefficient processing times, and poor customer service. But this parking lot racket is bad on another level. There is no evidence that the car requirements imposed by the D.C. DMV increase examiner or driver safety. The check engine light is a farce, and so is the hand brake: my examiner spent our entire ride holding a pen and clipboard. If I didn't have the capacity to brake at a moment's notice, she didn't either.