It was a week before Valentine's Day, and on the third floor of the CambridgeSide Galleria, the walls of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles' branch office were festooned with sweet nothings. "Hugs," said one heart-shaped note. "Kisses," read another. "Be Mine." "Valentine." "Love."
But if romance was in the air, it was wasted on those of us waiting for service in a line that scarcely budged. The dozen or so people already at the Registry when I showed up at about 5:10 p.m. weren't looking for hugs and kisses. All they wanted was what I wanted: to renew a driver's license or auto registration and leave.
The Registry calls the Cambridge office a "License Express," and claims that two-thirds of people who use it complete their business in less than 10 minutes. Nearly everyone 98.5 percent, says Ann Collins, the state's Registrar of Motor Vehicles gets out within 40 minutes. Apparently last Tuesday was reserved for the remaining 1.5 percent. My driver's license wasn't renewed until 6:25 an hour and 15 minutes after I arrived. That gave me plenty of time to cool my heels and read the Valentine's Day notes on the wall: "Angel." "Kiss Me." "Sweetheart."
It gave me time to notice other things, too. Like the fact that there were three service counters, but only one clerk. The fact that motorists were required to take a number from an electronic ticket dispenser, but nowhere was there a sign saying so or identifying the dispenser. And the fact that anyone planning to pay in cash was out of luck; US currency may be legal tender for all debts, public and private, but a notice at License Express announces: "No cash accepted." Of the more than 120 establishments in the Galleria, how many others do you suppose refuse to accept paper money? My guess would be zero. How many others ever keep customers waiting more than an hour to be served? I'd guess zero again.
In recent years, the Registry has offered motorists the option of renewing licenses and registrations online. When I tried that, the system rejected my application and told me I would have to renew in person. Collins later told me that online renewals are automatically rejected whenever a motorist's information has been entered into the system with some discrepancy for example, if a police officer misspells a name or address when writing a ticket. Whatever the reason, I have plenty of company: Fewer than 25 percent of license renewals are completed online. For more than three-quarters of Massachusetts drivers, it seems, there is no avoiding a trip to the Registry.
It's a funny thing: No commercial website has ever refused to take my money and ordered me to visit a brick-and-mortar facility instead. I have never had to stand in line for an hour to renew a credit card the new one arrives by mail even before the old one expires. From airline boarding passes to mutual funds, from utility bills to movie rentals, vendors and service providers of every stripe make it easy for consumers to get what they need without Soviet-style queues. Why can't the Registry of Motor Vehicles?
Here's why: Because customers who are fed up with Continental can go to JetBlue, and Blockbuster is an option if you're not happy with Netflix, but the RMV is a government monopoly if you want your license renewed, you've got nowhere else to turn. As a result, the Registry has no real incentive to improve its services.
Only private-sector competition will make the licensing and renewal process as fast and convenient as it could be. Happily, that wheel needn't be invented from scratch.
In a handful of enlightened states, motor vehicle bureaus already authorize private organizations to license drivers and vehicles; some places even boast self-service kiosks. "AAA can help you with your license, title, and registration needs for almost anyone or anything that operates on Minnesota streets, highways, waterways, sidewalks, and off-road trails," the Minneapolis AAA announces on its website. In Rhode Island, AAA has handled 155,000 license transactions and 100,000 automobile registrations since 2004. "That means we've taken a quarter-million people out of lines at the registry," says spokesman Bob Murray. "And with us, it's usually a couple-, three-, four-minute transaction; at the registry, it used to be a couple hours sometimes."
Massachusetts already permits automobile dealerships and insurance agencies to handle new-car registrations. If it expanded the law to allow private "franchises" to offer all Registry services, motorists would be undyingly grateful. Licensing of drivers and registration of cars may be unavoidable, but why entrust those functions to unmotivated bureaucrats? If the Registry really wants hugs and kisses, it should privatize its operations, and set the driving public free.