GIVE ME ONE GOOD REASON why we need a Registry of Motor Vehicles, and I'll give you $100.
Now in fairness, I must tell you this is not a challenge you are going to win. In recent weeks, I have found myself standing futilely in Registry lines -- we'll get to that in a moment -- and have had plenty of time to think this thing through. I have read the Registry's gushing propaganda. I have spoken with the Registry's jolly spokesman. I have quizzed friends and relatives. So far, no one has been able to think of a single function performed by the Registry that could not be turned over to a private company, or, better yet, dispensed with altogether. Maybe you can come up with one, but $100 says you can't.
Motorists wait (and wait) for their turn at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
To begin at the beginning, why must every automobile purchased in the state be registered with a government agency? It is no answer to say that cars are potentially hazardous. Chainsaws, muscle relaxants, Irish wolfhounds, and steel-tipped boots are potentially hazardous, too. Should the government also be keeping tabs on anyone who buys them?
Cars are registered, I have been told, to foil thieves. If the state didn't have a record of each vehicle's true owner, nobody could ever prove that a stolen car was his. That reasoning, you may have noticed, fails to deter 1.5 million auto thefts every year.
Then there is the argument that since cars are driven on public thoroughfares, the government is entitled to know who owns them. By that token, the government has a right to know who owns every bicycle and every pair of in-line skates -- they're used on public roadways too. Preposterous? Just wait. One fine day, some state will decide to assert that right, and then impose an excise tax on Schwinns and Rollerblades.
For that is what vehicle registration is really all about: collecting taxes. Big Brother wants to know where you live so he can make you pay a yearly ransom for your car. It has nothing to do with safety or crime-prevention or highway-control -- only money. The Registry of Motor Vehicles, with its metastasizing empire of cheerless buildings and surly employees, exists so you can be taxed.
Which brings us to the Registry's other great mission -- issuing and renewing driver's licenses.
Americans have been driving motor vehicles for more than a century. In that time, almost everything about the automotive experience has improved -- from the design of cars to the power of their engines, from the caliber of driver education to the cleanliness of fuel. The only aspects that grow steadily worse are those for which the state is responsible: Roads and bridges are crumbling, fuel taxes are sky-high, mismanaged freeways are congested -- and renewing your driver's license is a misery.
You would not know this from the Registry's cloying publicity materials. "Save time," chirps the cover of one brochure, "Visit License Express." Inside, the happy-talk burbles on: "License Express is there for your convenience! The lines are much shorter at a License Express location. . . . It's truly one-stop shopping!"
Take it from me: These are lies. Here is how it really works.
You show up at a License Express office -- the one, say, at Cambridgeside Galleria -- at 6:30 p.m., 30 minutes before closing. There are 18 people ahead of you in line, and two sullen clerks behind the counter. At 6:50, there are 15 people ahead of you. At 7:00, Sullen Clerk No.1 announces that those still in line may wait if they wish, but that at 7:30 the computer will be shut off.
Foolishly hopeful, you stay in line. At 7:29, there are 10 people ahead of you. One minute later, Sullen Clerk No.2 turns off the computer. You leave empty-handed.
The next day, irked, you call the Registry. You speak with the Registry's spokesman, who agrees that it is idiotic to turn off the computers while people who arrived on time are still waiting. "I'm taking this to the boss," he assures you. "Give me a couple days and it'll be fixed."
Five weeks later, you return to License Express. This time you are told to take a number and step to the counter when your number is flashed. Unfortunately, there are 46 numbers ahead of yours. Sullen Clerks No.1 and No.2 are in their places, moving people along at the rate of one every 9 or 10 minutes.
As you wait in vain, you wonder why renewing a common driver's license should be such a frustrating ordeal. There are 400 million credit cards circulating nationwide, yet no cardholder ever has to stand in line at a Mastercard office to renew one. When an old card is about to expire, a new one arrives in the mail. What prevents the Registry from doing with relatively valueless driving IDs what banks routinely do with credit cards worth thousands of dollars? Is it malevolence? Or mere stupidity?
The clock approaches 7:30. You haven't a chance. You could call a mutual fund at midnight and discuss your portfolio with an agent. You could get cash from an ATM at 4 o'clock in the morning. But at the state-run License "Express," the computers stop at 7:30 p.m., and the sullen clerks go home.
Any third-rate list-management firm could take over the Registry's operations and run them faster, smoother, and more cheaply. Processing registrations and driver's licenses is not exactly rocket science. It requires only competence. That just happens to be the one commodity in which the Registry, like most government agencies, is pitifully deficient.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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