The other side of the DMV
It only takes one trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles to put a bad taste in most visitors’ mouths.
Maybe it’s the wait in a line designated by the letter “A, B or C” – the feeling of herded cattle.
Or maybe its the general mood of a crowd of people who have better places to be and are being forced to wait to pay money. What other business forces you to wait that long to pay?
Whether you’re a cowboy from Elko or a Las Vegas city slicker, all Nevadans have this in common. And many of us describe it the same way.
It’s the dreaded trip we take to purchase a new car, take the driving test or update our plates. We go at odd times of the day, calculating long lines and betting against them. But usually we are wrong, and we have to wait in the long lines anyway; the ingrained distaste we have for this most dreaded state agency.
But there is a little known other side to this story.
DMV workers confront daily the attitudes of drivers who are mad when they walked in the door; people who wait for hours with the wrong paperwork, then stomp out when they realize they screwed up.
It changes your perspective to sit on the other side of the desk.
I had the opportunity last week to go undercover to “monitor” the activities of department employees and their interactions with customers.
Disguised as a department auditor, I sat quietly for a day in the Carson City office near a registration desk with pen and note pad, just observing.
“A lot of people come in here with attitudes and stories, but you learn not to believe anything,” said George Allen, an eight-year DMV veteran and one of seven registration technicians on duty in Carson City that day. Six were gone, either from sickness, vacation or travel to rural branches.
“It kind of hardens you,” he said. “When I started, I believed people’s stories, but a lot of it is not true.”
And the stories and excuses come all day. People who have suspended licenses, trying to renew. People without proof of ownership, trying to register. People with multiple DUIs trying to convince the desk clerks their licenses are in good standing.
It is a constant barrage of special requests, unusual circumstances and questionable stories.
Because of the Hot August Nights classic car event, the department was busier than usual. More cars are bought and sold during that week, and at the DMV the rush was visible. During normal traffic, a desk clerk will serve approximately 50 people during the course of a shift.
The day started at a seemingly steady pace. Customers were getting in, getting their cars registered and getting out without too much waiting or too many complications. But by the time the early lunch crowd rolled in (the department’s busiest time of day), the wait was long. And for the rest of the afternoon, it got longer – up to two hours.
With most of the major bugs worked out of the department’s new computer system, Genesis, that wait is unusual, said trainer Alana Herek. She was one of two people in the office who knew my true identity. During the busiest times of the day, the wait will max out at one hour, she said.
“We get some people who come in here mad and, depending on the technician, we can usually calm them down,” Allen said. “With some people there is nothing we can do.”
Several of the workers bring humor to the job, trying to lighten the moods of disgruntled customers. That seemed to be Allen’s angle.
“Today we’re having a special,” he’d tell a customer. “Half price.”
“You should have been here yesterday. We were giving them away free.”
And the customers respond. To Allen, one customer said “It’s nice to see a little humor at the DMV.”
But humor can only go so far. The saddest case of the day was a young woman who had driven from her home in Incline Village (jokingly referred to as “Income Village” by some of the workers), waited two hours in line, and was turned away because she had the wrong paperwork.
The frustration was written on her face, and there was nothing Allen or anyone else could do talk her out of it. “This has been a nightmare,” she said before storming out.
“We have an information booth and try to get everyone to stop and make sure they have everything,” Herek said. “We have a lot of people who absolutely refuse, and of course they don’t have everything.”
Despite the anticipation of some of the waiting customers, however frustrated and angry they are, for department workers, it’s just a working office.
They come in around 8 a.m. (depending on the shift), take their breaks and lunch – even if the line is long -and leave at 5 p.m. Their feathers aren’t ruffled by their experiences with customers, and most of the time they simply dismiss it.
One customer said it perfectly to Allen after seeing another leave upset. “It’s just a line. It doesn’t mean you have to go postal.”
For them, it’s just another day at the DMV.