Crony Capitalism

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

How D.C.'s DMV extorts drivers.

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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.

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  1. TOTALLY unrelated to the article, but does Reason actually have code in their site that makes it automatically scroll halfway down the page for no obvious reason when you open H&R. It does it to me on both desktop and mobile, and it is fucking ANNOYING.

    1. … some programmer’s way of making the User Interface “User-Hostile” rather than User-Friendly.

      They just think it’s what users prefer and apparently enough sheep ‘live with it’ rather than complain… if there’s anyone or anywhere to complain to at all…

      FaceBook has a similar thing, where, on MS Win10 and Google Chrome, at least, clicking on the link to a response to a previous comment DOES take you to the right page, but then scrolls down so the response is at the extreme top of the window’s frame. I always felt that centering it on the page would be much ‘nicer’… but WhoTF am _I_ to talk… I’ve just been working with computers since about 1967 and have this damned ‘knack’ for telling a good User Interface from a crappy one.

      I wonder if “Webpages That Suck” is still around… its critiques tended to be spot on!

    2. Whenever I post a comment it scrolls me way up, sometime to the top of the article. Kinda pisses me off.

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  2. Like anyone in DC can actually drive.

    1. I’ve driven all over the US and nothing I saw was scarier than a dark, rainy beltway at 0600. Fearless doesn’t describe those drivers, more like they just didn’t give a shit if they lived or died.

      1. They live in the beltway. I would be praying for death too.

      2. You must be driving on some other Beltway. I’ve found that DC area drivers are morons, not maniacs.

  3. Riggs is really airing grievances today.

    I took my one and only drivers test in a 1971 Super Beetle. No power steering, but as I had spent my teens working on getting it road-ready and painted up all pretty, no idiot lights were lit and there was an emergency brake betwixt the seats, which I assume is so the examiner can yank on it in a panic. None of which was required, as I recall. Also, a stick shift, which you don’t find much anymore.

  4. Doesn’t congress essentially have veto power over DC government?

    Team Red could put a stop to this nonsense instantly, if they had a mind to.

  5. For 20 bucks you can buy a code reader and diagnose your car yourself.

    1. Auto Zone will tell you the code for free.

  6. Lol. The hand brake is dumb but meets the minimum standards of a rational basis.

    Any auto parts store will read and clear your check engine light for free.

    1. It might immediately come back on though. You might have to pay them a little extra to make it stay off permanently…

    2. On top of that, unless it’s blinking that light has absolutely nothing to do with safety… And even then it means you have a misfire and at that point you wouldnt want to take it on a driving test if you had to.

      Their justification is probably that it COULD mean you car is putting out more pollutants then it should..

    3. It doesn’t when you realize that the hand brake is not enough to overpower the engine and the instructor pulling on it in a panic is, at best, going to do nothing except produce a lot of smoke, and, at worst, toss you into a full-on skid while setting the car on fire.

    4. They’ll read it, but legally, they can’t clear it. They would be responsible if you’re engulfed in a horrific flaming ball of death after they clear the code that said your brake light was out.

  7. I got a fixit ticket (correctable violation) in CA one time which I got fixed and signed at my nearest local police station. Then I brought it in personally because it was near the deadline and they refused to accept it “because it’s not stamped”. Apparently they expect you to go through their little inspection station that checks your car then stamps your ticket–for a fee of course. Not to mention already having to pay for their ripoff parking which I would have to leave and pay for again to come back to the desk. Pissed off, I went back to the local cop who dug out a bunch of stamps they had in a drawer, and stamped a bunch of different official govt logos on it. Then I mailed it late with a bitchy letter complaining about this unwritten demand. Never heard about it again, so apparently they took it.

    I also got a correctable ticket in college (state school) which I similarly fixed and got signed. When I brought it in to the school parking office they were like “whaaa? we don’t do that.” I guess no one ever tried to get their promised refund before. With this one I was forced to pay before I could correct it so I kept refusing to leave and asking for the manager. Finally some dude comes out the back and just hands me a five dollar bill.

    Recently they changed the law so correctable tickets have a fine even if you correct the violation. Jerks.

    1. Yup. The man wants his cut.

      I had a ticket for running a red light (which I did not run) and failure to produce proof of insurance (which I had, but couldn’t find the current card until after the officer had begun writing the ticket).

      I took my case to the DA and he offered to drop the whole thing if I paid a $100 civil penalty. I asked what that was…. it was $100 paid to the county that carries no violation, points or other infraction with it. Just a hundred bucks.

      “I have to get something for my client” was what he offered up in defense. See, if I wanted to fight it, I had to come back another day. Having already spent 6 hours waiting in court, I could see where this was headed. Spend a hundred now and be done with it, or come back and cost yourself a few hundred more in lost wages…. and maybe get convicted, facts be damned.

      So they extorted their hundred bucks. At least in that one case they were honest enough to come right out and admit it.

      1. Did you point out to him that you were his client?

        1. Actually, since his real client is government employees, he was his own client.

    2. I had a correctable ticket. I got charged $10 to clear it at the City court. :p

  8. It’s a rite of passage. One must learn to grovel to slopeheads with authority. I assume you’ve gone to high school, right?

  9. As someone who had a very frustrating experience at the DC DMV just a few years ago and maintains a low opinion of the organization, I found this article and its point of view completely ignorant. First off, not everyone has to take a driving or even written test to get a DC drivers license. I simply presented my valid license from another state. Getting my car inspected was another story, but that was mostly on me.

    Second, your car’s check engine light will not come on because of a busted tail light. A different sensor, one designed to alert you of a faulty tail light might do this, but not the check engine light. Simply linking to a half-assed article from the gawker of automotive websites does not validate your position (which seems to be born from nothing but frustration).

    And, what is the problem with their requirements, exactly? Do you drive a 1976 Ford F-100 pick-up? Most cars produced in the last twenty years in good mechanical condition will meet the requirements you listed.

    Also, what were the findings of the FBI investigation? Did a bunch of rich DC-ites complaining spur a needless investigation, or were there charges brought / wrongdoings uncovered?

    1. On at least the 2015 through 2017 Nissan Altimas, the parking brake is a pedal for the driver, not a handbrake. Not a rare thing at all.

      1. Toyota Highlander, and yep, parking brake is a pedal on the left. I can’t recall the last vehicle I was in with a center handle parking brake. And some cars will show an engine light if the gas cap is loose or worn to the point of not creating a tight seal.

    2. My 2010 Subaru Outback does not have a handle for the parking brake
      Its got an electronic parking brake.
      If I hold it down it gradually applies the brake.

      Many modern cars are moving in this direction, particularly luxury models.

    3. Some cars, if equipped with bucket seats, will meet the requirements.
      No cars with a bench seat, or trucks/SUV/crossovers, will meet the ridiculous mandate for a handbrake between the seats.
      BTW, the really rich (as opposed to politicians on the take), live outside DC.

    4. Actually I DO drive a 76 Ford. And my Acura MDX has the parking brake as a pedal on the left.

    5. Many new cars have auto parking brakes no pedal or middle of the seat lever at all.

  10. As someone who had a very frustrating experience at the DC DMV just a few years ago and maintains a low opinion of the organization, I found this article and its point of view completely ignorant. First off, not everyone has to take a driving or even written test to get a DC drivers license. I simply presented my valid license from another state. Getting my car inspected was another story, but that was mostly on me.

    Second, your car’s check engine light will not come on because of a busted tail light. A different sensor, one designed to alert you of a faulty tail light might do this, but not the check engine light. Simply linking to a half-assed article from the gawker of automotive websites does not validate your position (which seems to be born from nothing but frustration).

    And, what is the problem with their requirements, exactly? Do you drive a 1976 Ford F-100 pick-up? Most cars produced in the last twenty years in good mechanical condition will meet the requirements you listed.

    Also, what were the findings of the FBI investigation? Did a bunch of rich DC-ites complaining spur a needless investigation, or were there charges brought / wrongdoings uncovered?

  11. The next available date? June 21. (When I called on February 10 about taking the driving test, the earliest date was April 14.)

    Well, it got you an article – but I would have just crossed the road and taken the test in Maryland or Virginia. Make up an address. Give them a PO box to mail shit to.

  12. It doesn’t seem safe for a passenger to yank up the e-brake on an unsuspecting (and potentially inexperienced) driver.
    The car would likely spin around and hit something or someone.

  13. Make up an address.

    As soon as you sign the application, using a fake address qualifies as falsifying a government record, and most places will net you a stiff misdemeanor, or more.

    1. Really?

      Really?

      Seriously though, we should care why? Stupid laws are stupid laws and don’t deserve to be obeyed.

      1. …but are nonetheless often enforced.

        My solution would be to not live in DC.

  14. Need to start selling phony ebrakes and dummy light blackout stickers.

  15. One time my insurance lapsed for a day simply because of some weird thing with a holiday weekend with the DC DMV. It had nothing to do with what I did. I assumed everything was ok, because no one every said shit to me.

    So then months later I had to renew my registration. They said I had let my insurance lapse and that my registration had been suspended. WTF? “I have insurance and did the whole time, motherfuckers.” Nope. This one day it lapsed. “No, it didn’t!” According to our records it did, and you didn’t pay the $150 fine for 3 months so there’s a late fee.

    So, to get my registration re-instated I had to pay the $150 fine, an egregious late fee, a fine for driving without registration, a late fee on that fine, a registration renewal fee, and an inspection fee (for some reason without getting my car inspected). All in all it totaled over $750. A total scam.

  16. Like all state motor vehicle departments, D.C. requires residents seeking a driver license to take a written test and a driving test.

    LOL The first sentence shows the author has done absolutely no fact checking and is talking out his ass with no regard for journalistic integrity. I’ve been licensed to drive in over half a dozen states and have never once been required to take a “driving test” beyond the written test.

    1. I’ve never taken a driving test at a DMV either. Neither written or skills.

      When I got my license mid 90s I just took my drivers ed stuff at the high school. Passing drivers ed did require that we do a driving skills test similar to what they do at the DMV.
      In my case, the sign off of the high school teacher who taught drivers ed was all I needed.
      I suspect it had something to do with being an honors student also because most of my class had to do the test at the DMV too.

    2. I have. 1986, Roanoke, VA. After taking the high school driving course, I had to take the written test, then immediately took the “behind-the-wheel” portion (which consisted of driving around the block once.) Both tests administered at the local DMV.

  17. Buy a $25 code reader, hook it to your car, Google the code to see what the issue is, clear the code your self before you go to the DMV. or do it the way you described. Guess choice two makes for a better story.

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