Everyone is equal in the eyes of the DMV

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Rich or poor, young or old, we all go through the same process to get – or renew – or replace – that most ubiquitous and representative of American documentation and identification – our own driver’s license.

It is the ultimate emblem of coming of age and personal independence. Perhaps it is important that the acquisition of such a document be so drawn out, if not near-ritualistic, as if it were some ancient, tribal vision-quest style initiation into a secret – yet somehow public – new society – a world filled with those who get things done, who literally make things happen, and yes, go places.

Maybe it has always been true, but we Americans, in many ways, identify ourselves and each other by how we get around.

But as with all things, we must earn our way there, we must show that we deserve the privilege of driving, the ability to travel at speeds – and at comfort levels – unimagined – even by kings – barely over a century ago.  (1*)

And yet the process of getting such a document is meant to be a ritual requiring continual adherence and endurance.

It is a bureaucratic baptism of sorts. We, the applicant, or even supplicant, to this near-religious order of the road, bend our will, squint into the vision test and do our best to pose for a photo that we know will make us look ten pounds heavier, ten years older or suspiciously criminal.

"Any lane, any time" - that seems to be how we would all drive if we could...     Photo: Morf Morford
“Any lane, any time” – that seems to be how we would all drive if we could… Photo: Morf Morford

The inertia of the DMV has become legendary. The film Zootopia captured well the glacial momentum of the typical DMV office (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SmyATAYsNs).

Adding to the stuffy, under-staffed office is the ever-present – and ever-expanding – sheaf of papers, documents and booklets – in a variety of languages. (2*)

DMV documents in Spanish have been available for decades but are now available in a variety of languages. In Washington, you can take the written driver’s test in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese.

In Hawaii, South Dakota, Kansas and Maine, the driver’s test is only available in English.

In California the written test is available in large print. There is also an audio version and a video version (American Sign Language).

Other than recognizing basic traffic signals and signs, I don’t see any particular reason why fluency in English should be a requirement for driving. Being able to see clearly and hear distinctly seem basic though.

Everything you might want to know about getting, keeping or renewing a driver’s license in Washington state can be found here – https://www.dol.wa.gov/.

Each state sets its own guidelines for authorizing who can legally drive. Most states have established 16 as the minimum age requirement, though some have a few restrictions on novice drivers.

You can see the fine print on who can drive when here – https://www.verywellfamily.com/driving-age-by-state-2611172.

And if you thought the blurred photo that makes you look like a slightly-used, hung-over, overweight thug, it can get worse; my wife says my DMV photo doesn’t make me look like a thug – it makes me look like a terrorist – which may explain the “reception” I usually get at airport security.

The design of the license, especially with layers of security precautions, can make your questionable photo look even more peculiar.

If your photo is satisfactory, the internet is thick with really messed-up DMV photos.

For a little advice to get a near-acceptable DMV photo, here are few tips on photo preparation – https://driving-tests.org/beginner-drivers/top-7-tips-excellent-drivers-license-photo/.

I suggest doing your best to look good for your DMV photo. Yes we all know that there are some terrible ones out there, but it is far better to have a decent photo than one that looks like a mugshot.

For a rating of the design of driver’s licenses, from worst to best, take a look here – https://www.aceable.com/blog/all-51-driver-license-designs-ranked-worst-to-best/.

If you look at these, you’ll see that some are boring, some are cute, some are obvious and some are grotesque.

But what strikes me most is how similar they all are. These little cards are the ultimate linkage between the state and the individual – they express and define who we are – as citizens and as individuals.

I wonder if any state has thought of making a license in the shape of that state. It would be easy for the DMV of Oregon – or Nebraska – or Wyoming or Pennsylvania or Tennessee and maybe even Washington and a few others.

Some states align voter registration with driver’s licenses. You can see your state’s policy here – https://www.dmv.org/voter-registration.php.

Some of us love our cars so much that we never want to leave them.  Photo: Morf Morford
Some of us love our cars so much that we never want to leave them. Photo: Morf Morford

Love it or hate it, we all need the DMV. We love our cars and our access to them. Mass transit, for better or worse, may be more efficient and even faster – and certainly better (maybe) for long trips, but nothing will ever match the mythic place of the automobile in the American imagination.

Traveling across the country by rail, for example, sounds like an adventure, and flying, once you’ve done it a few times, gets tedious, but what is more “American” than the self-directed, not necessarily planned, “road trip”?

As I write this, I find myself getting even more nostalgic over what might be called the golden age of automobiles – the dominance of individual transport.

The emergence of self-driving cars and ride-sharing services makes the concept of personal car ownership quaint and clumsy – if not obsolete.

Many cities have banned cars from their business cores. Some urban planners have even proclaimed that cars are killing us and must be banned entirely –https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/07/cars-killing-us-driving-environment-phase-out.

Like everything else, it seems, nothing lasts forever, and even though your wait in line at the DMV might feel like an eternity, it too just might seem like another  ancient relic, like a rotary phone or a slide rule,  from a lost and distant pass.


(1*)    I love old cars – and old vehicles of all kinds, but travel of any distance before the advent of cars, rail and airplanes sounds like a major ordeal.

(2*)    You can see the full DMV guide – in English – here – https://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/docs/driverguide-en.pdf

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