Tyré Nichols had no clue what he was getting himself into. He went online, arrived at the office at 9:45 a.m. and brought all his necessary paperwork.
He expected to be in and out within a couple hours. And yet, there he sat six hours later, waiting outside the Department of Motor Vehicles in miserable 98-degree heat.
He soaked in the views of cars endlessly searching for imaginary spaces and watched the scores of people illegally cross a busy street. He was joined by the dozens more who couldn’t find a seat in the cramped office filled with a couple hundred people.
Nichols had plenty of company. There was the 92-year-old woman unable to take her renewal test by the 4:30 p.m. closing time after waiting in line since 10 a.m. There was Ben Koehler, who was celebrating his 28th birthday scurrying at the last minute to get his license renewed before it expired the following day. There were countless others with stories to tell, all of whom had one thing in common: They were furious.
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“Get ready to camp, because that’s what this DMV is all about,” Nichols said.
Over the last year, spiking wait times have hit particularly hard at DMV offices in the Sacramento region. Waits have increased by 60 percent, compared to a 48 percent increase in the Bay Area and 46 percent statewide. Some California lawmakers are infuriated with the DMV’s handling of the issue, accusing upper management of fudging wait times, misleading the public and poorly preparing itself for increased customer traffic expected with the advent of the Real ID card, which requires a visit to the DMV.
When the Legislature reconvenes on Aug. 6, rising wait times will be at the top of the list of priorities. Some are calling for a comprehensive audit into the department’s management, and Democrats are considering a plan to provide more money.
“Wait times are increasing, the lines are going around the block,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco. “Having people wait 4, 5, 6, 7 hours is completely unacceptable.”
DMV Director Jean Shiomoto acknowledged the department has had problems implementing Real ID, but defended the DMV’s management of the problem. “We’re definitely not just sitting here in our offices,” Shiomoto said. “We’re getting out to the regional offices….We have hard-working managers.”
She said there have been bureaucratic delays in getting spending authority to hire more workers. Some employees have had difficulty adapting to the department’s updated system for managing workflow. And customers sometimes misread the wait time explanations on the department website or fail to bring proper documents to the field offices, she said.
Wait time confusion
Before showing up at the DMV, many people turn to the department’s website to search for the next available appointment and look through the current wait times. Several of them discover that the next available appointment isn’t until after their registration expires, forcing them to show up without an appointment.
Those who read the site carefully will learn the DMV defines wait time as the period spent between getting a number and actually being seen at a window. Wait times do not include the time spent waiting in line just to get a number.
Nichols said he looked at the wait times on the DMV’s website and felt misled when he arrived.
“I looked online to get the requirements of what I needed and then looked at the wait times,” Nichols said. “(The wait times) were going to be bad, so I prepared myself. But I didn’t know it was going to be this bad.”
Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman, explained the department is working on developing a better system to more accurately represent the total time people spend waiting. She added that the website provides a clear disclaimer so people can know what to expect before they arrive, though she acknowledged a change in wording had recently been made to clarify any confusion.
“We have had the disclaimer since at least 2015,” she said in an email. “I know we made an edit to the language on June 15 and then the current language was updated July 18.”
But screenshots of past pages tell a different story. In recent months and years, the disclaimer simply said, “All wait times are reflected in hours and minutes,” which fails to account for the actual time spent waiting.
Holding the DMV accountable
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, accused the DMV of purposefully misleading the public.
“There’s apparently an effort to fudge the wait times on the DMV website,” Patterson said, claiming the wait times reflect a broader issue of accountability surrounding DMV management.
In an Aug. 8 committee hearing, Patterson plans to request a formal audit into the DMV’s management. He said he had a private meeting last month with Shiomoto, the DMV’s director, and was dissatisfied with her responses to his questions.
The Legislature approved a budget trailer bill in June, allocating $16.6 million for the DMV to “alleviate field office wait time.” Patterson claims the wait times have only gotten worse since then and that the DMV has a history of poorly managing its money.
“I don’t think the solution is throwing more money at them,” Patterson said. “That’s why I think the operational audit is necessary.”
Ting, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, is calling for a different approach. He thinks an audit will take several months, and by then, the problems will only worsen. He has scheduled a budget hearing in the Capitol on Aug. 7.
“I’m a big believer in the power of the budget committee,” Ting said. “I believe we can get to the issue much faster than an audit. I don’t want to wait nine months. … If this is a resource issue, I think we should throw more money at the problem.”
It’s unclear whether the DMV will ask for additional funding when Shiomoto appears at the hearing. She said the department is continuing to hire more people, in addition to the 400 employees it hired statewide under last year’s budget and the 166 new jobs being created through this year’s budget. She also noted the department is expanding hours of operation in certain offices. Still, Shiomoto said the DMV could benefit from more resources.
But the scores of people who continue to wait in lines flowing outside office buildings think change should come more quickly.
“California’s population is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Marvin Tibbitts, a frustrated Sacramento customer. “To force people to have to wait here…it’s kind of ridiculous.”