Lawmakers Consider Audit As California DMV Tortures Us With Endless Waits

All over the country, Departments of Motor Vehicles seem impervious to change or improvement.


I often meet people who believe a magical thing called "government" can fix virtually anything. For example, many California officials want to replace the healthcare system with "single-payer," which is another way of saying a system run by government. This column is designed to remind readers of how things work when "public-spirited" bureaucrats are in charge rather than "greedy" private folks who want to boost the bottom line.

There are far worse agencies than the Department of Motor Vehicles, but DMV remains the poster child for government inefficiency because we occasionally have to deal with it personally. The lessons it provides are enduring because DMVs seem impervious to change. No matter the decade, their field offices remain a cross between a bus station and a Soviet bread line.

Recently, I had two reasons to deal with DMV. I acquired a used car. I also passed a motorcycle-safety course and wanted to get the M1 endorsement. I tried making an online appointment, but they were weeks out. That could take me past the deadline for registering the car and I didn't want to send a title in the mail. I also didn't want to miss weeks of the motorcycling season.

So I headed to a DMV field office one morning and there wasn't a parking spot available. The lines circled to the back of the building. I tried another branch, but it was the same deal. I came back the next day before the office opened. The lines already were amazingly long. I went back again well before closing time, but California Highway Patrol officers were telling us the office was at capacity and sending us away.

I remembered that the AAA auto club provides some DMV services. I visited a club near my office and joined for a reasonable fee. The office was comfortable. There was complimentary coffee in the waiting area, but no need for it because there was no waiting. Within 15 minutes, I updated the registration and filed forms for the title change. Unfortunately, the DMV only outsources registration services. I had to brave a field office to get the motorcycle license.

I picked a quieter time (mid-morning, mid-week). DMV employees were very nice, but it took more than five hours. I went from the reception line to Window 1, then to the computer room to check in, then hours of waiting, back to Window 1, on to the written test room, another line, and back to the original clerk because of a paperwork glitch. Within a couple months, I'll get the license in the mail. DMV had posted an expected wait time on its website of around 1 ½ hours. As they say on Facebook, lol.

DMV always has been a frustrating place to visit, but it was worse than usual because of federal requirements to upgrade our license to a REAL ID if we want to use it to board an airplane. DMV received $23 million extra from the Legislature around a year-and-a-half ago to deal with the new requirements, Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) told me.

But then Patterson started hearing from people about the crazy lines and he found "they were not doing anything that they promised they would do with the money to make these lines shorter." The agency now is adding a few Saturday hours twice a month at some offices for limited services. He says it's too little and calls this whole mess "a monumental DMV failure," given that DMV has known about the federal rules for a long time.

Patterson met with DMV officials last week, but said they offered little more than excuses. As vice chairman of the Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee, he is considering an audit of the agency. That might help. After political pressure, DMV finally reduced its commercial-license backlog, which caused hardships for truck drivers.

But it's hard to really fix government because the incentives are wrong. If this were a business, DMV would already have been open round the clock until the backlog subsided. There would be innovations and comfortable offices with cafes. But DMV has little incentive to adopt customer-friendly changes and has to get approval from its unions. Its management apparently doesn't think there's a problem.

"In the past week, the average wait times for customers with appointments is 16 minutes and for non-appointments is an hour and thirty-five minutes," according to the DMV's response to my query. DMV "has hired hundreds of new employees, worked overtime and is opening offices on Saturday," she added. "We remain committed to serving the public and getting the job right."

Such great service done right! Welcome to the parallel universe known as government. We can chuckle given the infrequency with which we have visit DMV. But remember this lesson if, someday, you're stuck waiting all day to see your doctor or eons to get an MRI.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

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  1. Commifornia auditing itself is like cops investigating themselves. They always get off Scott free.

    If you don’t sell your property and move out of that state immediately, you are a fool.

    The reasons are too numerous to list here.

    1. This^. I left in 2007. Sold my house at the peak and moved to a free(er) state. Gave CA the finger as I crossed into Nevada and never looked back.

  2. All over the country, Departments of Motor Vehicles seem impervious to change or improvement.
    Don’t make me defend the DMV.

    The VA DMV has not been a hassle. In 10 years I have only gone to them twice. The first was when I moved to the state. The other was when I was late renewing the registration on my wife’s car. Neither visit was by appointment and took less than a hour. They were forgiving of the late renewal. They’ve since added renewal notifications.

    They offer many transactions online or offsite. When I bought a new car the titling, registration and a plate transfer were done by the dealer. The DMV also has mobile offices that travel around to large events, malls or office parks.

    1. Texas DMV isn’t too bad either. I’ve never waited more than 45 minutes, even going during peak after-work hours.

    2. Texas DMV isn’t too bad either. I’ve never waited more than 45 minutes, even going during peak after-work hours.

    3. NM licensed DMV functions to private businesses here. There’s an additional service fee on top of the DMV fees, generally in the $30 range these days, but the wait times are either completely non-existent, up to maybe 30 mins as the worst wait at one I’ve ever experienced.

      There’s still a “regular” state DMV office or two around that you can go to if you don’t want to pay the extra fee. Those offices are… less swift.

    4. I’ve often wondered where these DMV horror stories come from, myself. I’ve used offices in Chicago and NYC, and have had consistently efficient service. Nothing to complain about, really.

    5. SC DMV is rather quick and efficient

    6. And yet another dissent, if belated. I got excellent service twice in a row and thought I might just have gotten lucky. I needed to get a duplicate registration, which you can’t do online, so I went to the office a little before they opened at 8AM. I was the 8th person in line. I went in, they asked what I needed and I got a number.

      Very shortly thereafter, I walked out to the car with the new registration. It was 8:19. Not a fluke, this is just how it works now. The lady who helped me agreed that her job was a hell of a lot easier, dealing with happy customers, than 10-20 years ago when I witnessed someone become so frustrated there was a fistfight.

      And back then I would have used the DMV office as a source of “gubmint sooo inefficient” stories, too. No more. The improvements in staffing, software usage, and especially the initial triage where they make sure you’re never waiting in the wrong line, and that you have the documentation you’ll need BEFORE you wait to see someone.

      The “DMV is the worst, man.” can join the Dated Stereotype Club, along with “Made in Japan means a cheap knockoff” (admiteedly an old one) and “Mexicans are lazy.”. Just not true. Except (plot twist!) in California, apparently.

      (this is Utah, btw)

  3. I have lived in places where the DMV was a mess, and places where it worked fairly well, and in one place where it changed from the former to the latter while I lived there.

    When I moved into Washington DC, going to the DMV was a nightmare. Long lines, bad conditions, rude clerks, and confusing instructions all combined to waste an entire day n something that should have been simple. The next year, Sharon Pratt Kelly was elected Mayor, and began to try to clean up the mess that Marion ‘Crack Pipe’ Barry had left behind.

    Kelly couldn’t catch a break. She got the blame for a raft of necessary decisions, like closing redundant fire houses. Yes, the first thing a politician does when faced with a smaller budget is to threaten police and fore services. In this case, it needed to be done. She got a whole lot of connected people mad at her, and to top it off nobody had ever taught her to smile for a camera, so every picture of her looks like she was having a fit. She only lasted one term.

    But WHILE she lasted, I had reason to go back to DMV. I had three errands, and confidently expected it would take me two whole days.

    I got done in an hour and a half.

    1. canted.

      There are some legitimate government functions. One might argue against drivers’ licenses, but IF they are going to exist, running them at the state level makes sense. DMVs done’t have to be nightmares. Under responsible administrations, they aren’t. But let the politicians get distracted by pet projects and crusades and core functions always suffer.

      I bet DMV in California is a freaking nightmare. And it won’t get fixed until somebody kills the High Speed Train d-e-a-d dead. Why? Because playing with a billions dollar project is more exciting that straightening out a bureaucracy.

      1. There are some legitimate government functions. One might argue against drivers’ licenses, but IF they are going to exist, running them at the state level makes sense.

        [citation needed] for that initial assertion. Please provide detailed examples, including counter-arguments to show you’ve considered the opposite.

        As for drivers’ licenses, I can’t think of any reason why “running them at the state level makes sense”; if that’s typical of your first assertion, you’re just another statist with little imagination.

        All a US drivers license shows is that you can pass a stupid written test and an almost as stupid driving test. AAA could administer the same tests just as easily, any business could. One of the classic libertarian scenarios is private roads, which are eminently practical, and that certainly includes some form of controlling who drives on them from a safety point of view.

        1. “[citation needed] for that initial assertion.”

          The assertion that there are some legitimate government functions? The Constitution lists 18 of them that the founders felt were legitimate enough to explicitly grant to the federal government.

          1. Appealing to the authority of the Constitution doesn’t demonstrate that something is a legitimate government function. The Constitution is pretty good, but it’s not the final arbiter of what government legitimately ought to do.

        2. Perhaps if AAA were to issue driver’s licenses it would have the freedom not to issue driver’s licenses to people who cannot read English (a rather basic requirement if one is to read and follow street signs and directions on maps). Or not.

        3. I’ll indulge you this far;

          Any polity needs some form of armed body for defense. The history of militias, especially in the modern era, is poor against conquest (insurgency is another matter). Outsourcing to private mercenary companies has been tried, in many different eras, and has tended to go poorly (see The Thirty Years War for details).

          1. Was anyone here advocating for privatizing national defense?

            1. I was asked to provide backing for the assertion that there were legitimate functions of government. I did. I never said anyone was calling to privitization of the War Department (Department of Defense my ass). Indeed, I chose that example to highlight the absurdity of challenging that there were legitimate government functions in the first place.

              Although, when you think about it, the idiots sporting “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the schools got all the money they need and the Air Force had to hold a bake sale to buy a new bomber” are advocating private funding of the defense function.

              As well as ignoring the multiple studies showing that what’s wrong with the schools isn’t lack of money.

    2. A few years ago I went to the nearest DMV and the line was out the door and down two block, and HOUR before the doors even opened. So I drove twenty minutes to the next one and only five people were in line. It is extremely hit or miss.

      But they all have the same depressing atmosphere that would make the unemployment line in Sobiet Union seem pleasant.

      1. I have lived in two areas where some effort was made to brighten up the DMV offices….and in both cases, they were jumped on for wasting the taxpayers money. In several cases, by people who had regularly bitched about how run-down and depressing DMV facilities were.

        I won’t say that DMV cannot win. I have seen nice writeups of DMV services now and again. But they start with two strikes against them.

  4. If you want a pleasant DMV experience, you need to get away from city/suburb.

    About a month ago my registration’s came up. We went to the county courthouse (county treasurers office seems to run them in Iowa), and we were in and out in under 5 minutes.

    The only real pain point is that in Iowa the fee is based on the vehicles list price, age, and weight.

  5. Of course, there is the option of telling the feds to bugger off, and take their tainted tax dollars with them, right?
    Maybe, just maybe, they could admit that the ‘REAL ID driver’s license’ is just a national ID card, and is used far many more times for ID than for actually showing to a cop during a traffic stop.
    How long would the DMV be justified if you only had to show a driver’s license during a traffic stop? Never as ID in a commercial establishment. Never to TSA. Never as proof of age to facilitate a commercial transaction. Never for anything but a traffic stop. Never in a doctor’s office. Not worth the time, right?

  6. Locally, our DMV has a great system. It’s a text (phone) based system, and you can make appointments weeks in advance (and it texts you an hour or so before your appointment, and tells you the expected wait). You can also make an appointment on the way to the DMV, and it texts you of your progress in line. Wouldn’t expect that out of one of the poorest urban counties in FL, but we have it. Much less waiting at the DMV now.

    1. Thirty day backlog in some parts of California for appointments.

    2. I’m now envisioning you checking your phone on I-95, in route to the the DMV to renew your license.
      Unfair, I know, but that’s the image that popped into my head when I read your post.

      Our system is pretty good, too, although it’s pure cronynism. Whoever is in office gives it to whoever he wants. A few years ago, one of the local ones went from sharing a building, (and owner), with a cell phone place to sharing a building with a barber, all because the incumbent, who was supported by the cell phone guy, lost, and the new guy was supported by the barber.
      It helps that there is another not far from there, but in a different district and owned and operated by someone else, set up in a building that would make tiny house advocates happy. That one isn’t shared with anything, and I’m pretty sure the structure is set up on the highway edge of the owners yard.

  7. Locally, our DMV has a great system. It’s a text (phone) based system, and you can make appointments weeks in advance (and it texts you an hour or so before your appointment, and tells you the expected wait). You can also make an appointment on the way to the DMV, and it texts you of your progress in line. Wouldn’t expect that out of one of the poorest urban counties in FL, but we have it. Much less waiting at the DMV now.

  8. I just moved to Washington and went through all the usual stuff to register my car and get a new DL. No lines whatsoever. In fact there were only 2 of us in the whole place… not counting the government employees that is. Everyone was super nice. Not surprising considering they barely have to work.

    1. Jesus fuck, this may be the most horrifying thing you’ve ever yet uttered. :p

  9. In the past few years, I’ve dealt with Ohio, Colorado and California DMV’s. The OH and CO were relatively painless, wait times usually less than 30 minutes. Always open Saturdays. There were times I walked right up to the window without waiting, usually late morning during the week. California? Make an appointment 3+ weeks out for the privilege of spending “only” 45 minutes in line. No appointment? You better pack a lunch.

    The difference is OH and CO have the registrar’s name right on the window. Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles, Joe Smith, Registrar. I assume these are political plums handed out by the Governor, but the system works. I assume the guy keeps his agency by keeping his customers happy. If he becomes a PITA to the Governor, he’s out.

    1. “No appointment? You better pack a lunch.”

      Wallet got lifted, had to replace D/L; forget a 3-wk wait.
      Hit the (CA) DMV, 9AM. Prompt service (no tests, no photo, just paperwork) got me out of there by 3:30PM.

  10. The Waco TX DMV is awful. Back in Nov/Dec I had to renew my DL & the computer’s kept going down. The woman that was trying to help (checking people’s forms, etc.) actually laughed and smiled when she told a room full of people “It could be down 5 minutes or 3 hours, you just have to wait.”

  11. Yeah, I think this is more a California thing than a government thing. After years of being a joke, Georgia has gotten with the ’90’s and computerized a bunch of their stuff. Out here in the sticks, even though there’s two different offices for DL’s and tags, both are no worse than Walmart. On the other hand, trying to get a title for a car I bought from a junkyard over in Alabama….all day at the state office in Atlanta after days of making phone calls trying to find out what I needed to bring to the office and being given the run-around, including being told by one lady that she didn’t think it was even possible to get a title for an out-of-state salvage vehicle.

  12. I just wanted to give a shout out to my home state of Illinois where the wait times at our Secretary of State Drivers Services Facilities are frequently less than 10 minutes and generally don’t run over 30 minutes at peak times. Also, we don’t use lines; we use a digital take-a-number system (based on the service on needs) and people are seated while waiting and then directed to the appropriate counter when the next agent at that counter is available.

    But it wasn’t always that way. Our Secretary of State, Jesse White, inherited a broken, long-line system from then-SoS George Ryan (who was sent to federal prison for giving truck licenses for bribes to his campaign fund) and he worked hard to fix it. He also did an organ donation public information campaign with Connie Payton and does many great things for the community. He gets re-elected with fanfare every year and everyone loves him. No one complains about the DMV here. I actually renewed my license last year in 5-10 minutes at an “express renewal” facility in downtown Chicago which is just there for limited “express” services in case you don’t want to go to the main office where it might take as many as 15-30 minutes to renew a license (the horror). When voters make politicians accountable, the system can work well. California voters are to blame for their poor services, not the government bureaucrats the choose to elect again and again, year after year.

    1. I forget who was the SoS before Ryan, but the DMV was a joke. I was never a fan of Ryan, but he did improve the DMV at the time.

      I live in California now and the DMV here is torture. Six hours renewing my license last month.

  13. Coworker spent EIGHT HOURS standing in line at the DMV this week.

  14. Here in Oklahoma, all the usual DMV-type stuff is split between the state Department of Highway Safety and the tag agencies, which are private contractors granted a monopoly in their area.

    So first you have to go to the State office for all the paperwork and tests for your licence and then travel all the way across town to the Tag Agent for some more paperwork, picture taking, and receiving the actual licence.

    It’s still much much faster, easier, and friendlier than the bureaucratic nightmare in California.

  15. CA has a bajillion 3rd party DMV vendors that do everything the DMV does. So who cares how slow the DMV is? Go see a private agent.

    Yuma county has one single, solitary DMV office for 200,000 people – and we’re doing just fine because 99% of everything can be done online (including renewing driver’s licenses) or at a private vendor close to you.

  16. Why are government employees the only ones with cushy 9-5 jobs? They work for us but we are the ones who have to take off work to deal with them. They should be open evenings and weekends. All government offices, not just the DMV.

  17. At this point, I’m just surprised that there’s anyone left in California.
    The DMV in Michigan is actually pretty good. You can do most things online. If you do need to go in, there’s lots of branches and you can make an appointment. Even if you don’t have an appointment, you go in and they triage your situation as soon as you arrive, make sure you have the right documents, give you an estimate for you wait, and then set you up for a text notification for when it’s your turn. You can leave and get a coffee if you want, but why bother I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes.
    I give credit to the Republican Secretary of State. In Michigan, the head of the DMV is an elected office. They literally run their campaign on how great they will make your experience at the DMV.
    Every state should have a single elected official for each and every important thing that voters care about. Imagine a Secretary of Roads or a Secretary of Jobs. Imagine if the campaigns were about how they were going to make that single thing better.

  18. And then What? Audit failure equals another 5 Million bureaucrats tasked with documenting it

  19. In the past week, the average wait times for customers with appointments is 16 minutes and for non-appointments is an hour and thirty-five minutes,”

    That is a bald face lie! I spent six hour at the DMV two weeks ago. People that were able to get an “appointment” were waiting upwards of four hours. Complete bullshit.




  21. while i have not had much in the way of problems with doing things at the dmv i do notice that there are a number of ways to make the dmv much more efficient. There are enough employees but they all micromanage their jobs. The forms MUST be consolidated into one form containing all info about the action. At present every task has a seperate
    form and each form has a series of windows to appear before. If all forms were the same and each “customer service” window would handle any process that alone would cut times a minimum of 80%. All the forms are available on line and all IT would have to do is make one form for everything and have one spot for the requested service on the first line in large fonts of a different color for each process. blue for registration, red for driver licenses, etc. One other thing the DMV must monitor testing areas for other than english applicants. I, personlly have seen “helpers” in the testing areas actually telling the person taking the exam what box to check. I told the “customer service” person about it and she shrugged her shoulders as if to say not my job. That pretty well sums up the DMV in Kalifornexico.

  22. I’ve gone to two different DMVs in California. Neither was a big hassle, but I’m also not in the metro areas. For one has an appointment and was in and out in fifteen minutes. The other I didn’t have one and was still in and out in 90 minutes.

    That said, the “RealID” retirements aren’t a DMV problem, they’re a state legislature problem. After the legislature has been saying “not yet” for a decade it’s kind of a dick-move to blame the DMV for not getting it done faster.

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