Back-Seat Driver

DMV visit times can top five hours. Here are ways to avoid the worst hassles

Visit times at the Department of Motor Vehicles are topping five hours, and unwary motorists find themselves spending entire mornings or afternoons trapped in crowded field offices.

Liz Guillen, a legislative advocate, was among them last week. The earliest appointment she could get to replace a lost license was next month, so she dropped by the Broadway office Thursday instead at 8:30 a.m. — and didn't get out until 1:43 p.m.

"It's almost undignified," she said, sitting in the jammed room. "California is the fifth-largest economy in the world!"

For those who must deal with the DMV soon, here are some tips to minimize hassles.

First, why are lines so long?

The DMV has struggled to roll out some major changes this year.

The state began issuing federally-mandated REAL ID cards, which is bringing thousands more people to field offices. The REAL ID cards are driver's licenses that will serve as identification at federal airport security checkpoints for domestic flights starting in October 2020.

The DMV also changed its numbered "queuing" system for motorists waiting at field offices, but the new system confused some employees, lengthening waits. Employees in some offices are being retrained.

Try Saturday

To ease the crowding, the DMV opened the doors of 40 field offices on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and will continue that on the first and third Saturdays of each month. The state may open three more field offices on Saturdays in July if enough drivers are coming in. The DMV lists the first 40 on its website.

But, really, stay away

If you are doing a transaction that can be handled online or via mail, don't come in to the office. Here is the DMV link to what services you can do online.

An early appointment trick

DMV asks everyone to make an appointment before going to a field office. DMV officials last week said they've cleared up most of their new numbered queuing system issues and have brought more employees on board, so wait times for people with appointments should be shortening.

Drivers can sign up on the DMV website appointment page. You also can call the DMV's 800-777-0133 number. But the wait time Friday for an operator was two hours. The DMV suggests you leave your phone number and they will call back.

They also tell drivers not to wait for a renewal notice in the mail. Instead, make an appointment 90 days in advance of your birthday or registration month.

What days not to show up

The last day of each month is typically crowded. People are rushing to get registration tags. Also, don't go the day after a holiday or the first day of the month. The best day of the week is usually Wednesday. But field offices don't open on Wednesdays until 9 a.m., one hour later than usual. Field offices open on Saturdays may have shorter lines.

Try showing up late

If you show up at a field office before 5 p.m. without an appointment, they will not turn you away when the doors close at 5. That means field offices are doing evening hours. There is no knowing, however, how long you will have to wait. The last appointment time each day is 4 p.m.

Go digital

Fingers crossed, the DMV soon will allow people to fill out their driver's license applications online at home or on their tablet or smartphone, then hit the send button to file them electronically with the DMV. You still will have to come to the office to finalize some transactions, but the new technology should reduce wait times.

Self-service

The DMV is installing self-service computer terminals in many offices, allowing drivers to get registration done or to file for planned non-operation on a vehicle. DMV plans on expanding services at the terminals in the future.

Try your supermarket

If you want to get your registration sticker in person instead of the mail, check to see whether there is a "DMV Now" self-service terminal at your local supermarket. You can key in your information and pay with a debit or credit card. The machine will spit out your sticker. The DMV website lists where those locations are. In Sacramento, there is one at the midtown Safeway.

REAL ID cards

If you want a REAL ID card, you have to go to a field office. However, some people are showing up without proper documents. You can get the document checklist on the DMV's REAL ID website pages.

One REAL ID rule is proving tricky: If your married name is different from your birth certificate or Social Security card, you probably need to bring your marriage license to show you had a name change.

But here's a shortcut: Your U.S. passport with your current name qualifies in place of a marriage certificate.

In fact, if you have a passport, you can skip the whole REAL ID process if you want. The passport works as official ID at federal checkpoints for domestic flights and will continue to be valid after October 2020, when regular driver's licenses will no longer be valid at airport checkpoints.

Buying a car

If you buy a car from someone, you have 30 days, not 10, to go to a DMV office to sign over ownership of the car, DMV officials said. That's become more important now that appointments are hard to get in the near term.

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