Why should the state license drivers?
by Jeff Jacoby
NOTE: This column is available through the New York Times Syndicate. For permission to republish it, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 732-390-4480.
WITH MY DRIVER'S LICENSE expiring in February, I made a trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles last week to renew it. To my astonishment, I was in and out of the RMV branch at the Watertown Mall in just 15 minutes.
From past experience, I had expected much worse. When I renewed my license five years ago -- at a facility the Registry whimsically dubbed a "License Express" -- I had to wait for an hour and a quarter before being served. An earlier renewal had required two trips to the Registry: The first one proved futile when the clerk shut off the computer at closing time, curtly telling the 11 people in line that they would have to come back another day.
So it was a pleasant surprise when my latest encounter with the Registry proved so quick and painless.
Of course it would have been even more painless to renew my driver's license online, but when I tried to do so my application was rejected. It turns out the Registry was listing me under multiple records; the system had generated a new one whenever my address changed, and it was unable to merge them -- or to issue a new license -- unless I appeared in person. "But I've lived at the same address for 15 years," I said to the clerk. He shrugged. "It should be OK next time," he told me.
Yet why should there have to be a next time? Why should keeping an ordinary driver's license up to date oblige anyone to deal with a government agency, in person or online? I hadn't even realized that my license was about to expire until an airport security agent pointed it out to me the last time I flew out of Logan. The Registry no longer sends renewal notices; and woe betide the motorist who gets pulled over with an expired license, an infraction that can trigger a fine of up to $1,000, not to mention a potential arrest.
Try to imagine Visa or Discover requiring you to remember when your credit card is about to expire, and making you get in line at a branch office or go online to renew it. On the contrary: They do the remembering and renew your card automatically. Before the old one expires, you get a new one in the mail. And if there is an anomaly in your account, they typically flag it and alert you right away.
In the private economy, automatic renewals are routine. From Netflix subscriptions to homeowner's insurance to newspaper delivery, vendors and service providers of every description make it simple to keep your account up-to-date. Your antivirus software and 401(k) investments can be put on autopilot, refreshing at regular intervals unless you choose to opt out. Why shouldn't your driver's license work the same way?
Maybe the real question is why the state should license drivers in the first place.
It's one thing to require would-be motorists to enroll in driver's-education classes and to be tested on their knowledge of safe driving practices and highway signs and signals. And of course anyone getting behind the wheel of a car should be liable for damage caused through negligence or irresponsibility. But to condition driving itself on governmental permission? To extort a chunk of money every few years to keep that permission current? By what right?
It's no answer to say that driving can be dangerous or that roads are public property. Drinking bourbon, building campfires, and playing ice hockey can be dangerous too, but you don't need Big Brother's say-so before you can do them. And if drivers have to be licensed because they use public roadways, why shouldn't bicyclists, joggers, and skateboarders be licensed as well?
In the new state budget he unveiled last week, Governor Deval Patrick chops $15 million from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. "We have to start doing things differently in a whole host of areas," he explained. "That is not just government doing things differently; it is asking citizens to interact with their government differently."
Agreed. But rather than merely trimming the Registry's budget, what Patrick should be asking is why issuing or renewing driver's licenses needs to be a public function at all. You shouldn't need a license to drive a car any more than you need one to use a computer or ride a horse. I'm grateful that my latest trip to the Registry went so briskly. If Patrick is really open to doing things differently, however, eliminating those trips altogether would be a great step forward.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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