By Gail Kerr | The Tennessean
Tennesseans have griped for decades about the long lines to get or renew their driver's license. New technology is finally helping fix the problem.
Across the state, there are now 72 Apple iPad kiosks inside 26 driver centers in mostly urban areas, where you can quickly renew or replace your driver's license using a credit or debit card. You also can use the kiosks to pay reinstatement fees or change your address.
At the Centennial Station in West Nashville one recent day, drivers were completing their transactions on the three new iPads in six minutes. It takes two more minutes to get a new photograph shot.
"It worked pretty well," said Leah Byrd, who was replacing her lost license. "It was a lot faster than I thought it would be."
Said Mohammad Bodruzzaman: "It's definitely easier. That was familiar technology. It went very well."
Early reports are the new technology is reducing wait times -- there's been a 40 percent increase in people ducking out of the long lines and using the iPads instead.
Before, there were computers available, but "they were not very reliable," said Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons. "These are much more customer-friendly. It's really going to speed up the process a lot."
Drivers who were fumbling with the technology got a quick assist from station workers.
Gibbons recalled that in the last days of Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration, Bredesen and then-Safety Commissioner Gerald Nicely "were very honest with me."
"They said, 'Your biggest challenge will be the driver's license services,' " Gibbons said. "They had tried to fix it, and they fell short. They were correct. The problem goes back decades."
The pay is not great for station employees, he said, and the facilities have been subpar. There was little, if any, training.
"This is one piece of the puzzle," said Gibbons, who gamely tried the iPad himself.
So what are the other pieces?
* Have a more professional, organized operation. All station employees are undergoing training, and a new half-inch-thick policy manual has replaced a 6-inch one that was full of gobbledygook. The pool of potential supervisors has been expanded.
* A renewed emphasis on customer wait times. The goal: a 20-minute or less average waiting time at every station statewide. In May, the average was 33 minutes.
"The good news is 20 out of 51 stations are already at 20 minutes or less, defined as the time from when you get a ticket," Gibbons said.
He concedes that people often wait in lines before they get to the desk to get a service ticket. At Centennial, those who were waiting to take the driver test or get a learner's permit said they had waited anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
"The bad news is, 19 out of the 51 were over 30 minutes at the end of May," Gibbons said.
The department also is going to paperless transactions, to quicken the process. You'll still fill out a paper application, but it will be scanned into a computer instead of typed in.
There also is a new push to remind drivers they can renew online. In ZIP codes with the longest lines, you'll now get a postcard reminder when your license is about to expire.
"Our concept is to move the easier transactions to kiosks, online or the county clerk's office," said Michael Hogan, director of driver services. "The more complicated transactions, they will wait in line."
* Consistent hours, with all stations now open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Gibbons gave credit to Bredesen's administration for that recommendation. Before, he said, it was confusing. Every station had differing hours and days it was closed.
* All stations will get renovations to make them easier to maneuver. Centennial is closed today and Tuesday for renovation. Other area stations are open. Every station will be briefly closed in coming months.
Closures are listed on the department's website at www.tn.gov/safety/dlmain.shtml.
* Forty stand-alone kiosks will be put in public places by the end of the year, possibly in police precinct lobbies. The department will test the technology this month.
"It takes your photograph and everything," Gibbons said.
* Expand the number of county clerks who provide driver's license services. Right now, 40 out of 95 clerks renew or replace your license. The new goal is to get to 50.
* Expand partnerships with school systems, where driver's ed students can take the state skills test instead of standing in line to take it at the stations.
* Send drivers who are applying to reinstate their license to six of 51 centers. These are people who had a DUI or failed to pay fees. The process to reinstate your license is lengthy and was slowing things down for everyone else.
"The goal is to have as many of our customers as possible use the quickest technology," Gibbons said.
The counties and centers with the new iPads: Davidson County (Centennial Boulevard, Tennessee Tower, Hart Lane), Sumner County (Gallatin), Williamson County (Franklin), Madison County (Jackson), Knox County (West Knoxville, Strawberry Plains), Blount County (Maryville), Rutherford County (Murfreesboro), Dickson County (Dickson), Obion County (Union City), Sullivan County (Blountville), Montgomery County (Clarksville), Putnam County (Cookeville), Shelby County (Summer Avenue Millington, Walnut Grove, Whitehaven, Hickory Ridge Mall), Fayette County (Oakland), Bradley County (Cleveland), Hamilton County (Red Bank, Bonnie Oaks), Washington County (Johnson City) and Greene County (Greeneville).