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Wednesday August 21st 2019

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An Afternoon in Hell


I recently had to spend three and a half hours in Hell, also known as the Boulder office of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles.

Driver licenses in Colorado are good for five years and must be renewed during your birth month. I turned 65 in October and, having a driving record clean of tickets, went to the DMV web site to renew online. The web site refused to cooperate, so I placed a call to a DMV operator. There was no problem with my record, and according to the operator the web site should have accepted my renewal. But, my only recourse was to renew in person at the local DMV office.

In Boulder the DMV operates out of an undersized space at the end of a dingy corridor in the decrepit Diagonal Plaza shopping center at 28th Street and Iris Avenue. After dodging potholes and uncovered drainage channels in the parking lot,  I ventured into the DMV office, stood in line for a few minutes with some other disoriented patrons and took a number. I was number 245. On the wall the “now serving” sign said 190.

The DMV office was crowded and reminiscent of a Soviet era bus station. Some of the more foresighted customers had brought books to pass the time. The rest of us planted ourselves in the DMV’s uncomfortable chairs and waited our turns.

At first I was perturbed at having to spend an entire afternoon due to a DMV computer hitch. However, since Colorado requires me to have a license to legally drive my Honda, I simply resolved to make the best of a bad situation. People watching became my means of passing time, and as an observer of government, an opportunity to judge the operations of the DMV. Some random thoughts about my time at DMV Hell:

  • Government employees are often stereotyped as time-serving drones with no interest in helping the public. That wasn’t the case at the understaffed Boulder DMV office. There were five people at work in the office, three of whom were clerks dealing with the public. All had smiles, were friendly, talkative and doing their best to help.
  • And the clerks had a wide variety of people to assist. The teenager, fresh from driver education, needing to take the written test and a ride with the feared examiner. A foreign couple, probably from China, trying to navigate the bureaucracy (and the language) in order to obtain an American license. The elderly man, a driver for sixty years, who let his license lapse (the DMV sends no reminders) who must go through the entire process. The bored and crying children stuck with their parents in DMV Hell. And the rest of us, just needing to renew our licenses.
  • The office was simply too small for the amount of traffic. The Boulder DMV bureau handles the entire county of nearly 300,000 people. Service cutbacks implemented by the legislature and governor have made the situation worse, and not just in Boulder.
  • The interior of the office was festooned with conflicting signs. No one checked people in and answered their questions. Some customers took numbers and waited for hours just to pick up a form or booklet.
  • The DMV has no “express lane,” nor can patrons make reservations except for taking driving tests. Someone needing simply to renew a license (a five minute exercise) must wait as long as someone needing service that takes a half hour of the clerk’s time.

After finally getting served by a cordial clerk I waited another half hour for a photo to be taken for my new license, which subsequently arrived promptly in the mail.

I came away from the experience irritated with the waste of time and the inefficient operation. But I was also impressed by the professionalism of the DMV staff at the Boulder office. Standing at a service window with few breaks, getting chewed out by angry citizens, having to maintain a pleasant attitude, being the object of derision by conservative politicians, and not getting paid much in the process is not a position I’d relish.

I guess Hell is too extreme a term for my experience. Purgatory might be a more accurate analogy for those of a religious bent. Many hack politicians rail at government and seek more cuts in public services, including DMV operations. Perhaps as punishment for their parsimony they should be required to sit through three and a half hours at a DMV office. No online license renewals for them.

Doug Bruce, we have a seat for you. Bring a book.

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One Response to “An Afternoon in Hell”

  1. Seth Brigham says:

    Try the Social Security Office sometime…

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