A Look at the DMV That Is, and the DMV That Should Be

A Look at the DMV That Is, and the DMV That Should Be

A couple of months ago, the rear license plate was stolen off my car during the night while it was parked outside of my Los Angeles apartment. Only the rear license plate was stolen; the thief was likely after my registration stickers, which wouldn’t expire for almost a full year.

The experience of getting a replacement license plate was extremely subpar - confusing, frustrating, and dragged out over several months.

I am, of course, far from alone in being frustrated by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In fact, our new Governor Gavin Newsom has said that the “DMV has been chronically mismanaged and failed in its fundamental mission to the state customers it serves”. For that reason, Newsom has ordered a comprehensive modernization and reinvention of the DMV. Finally!

To appreciate just how bad the current situation is, let’s run down two versions of dealing with my stolen license plate - I’ll first tell you what I think it could - should! - look like, using readily-available technology, and then I’ll tell you what I actually went through.

The California DMV That Should Be

October 9th, 8:32 AM - Oh no! My license plate has been stolen. This sucks. I hope I won’t be late to work.

I open my CA GOV app on my phone. I know I could also do it on the CA.gov website, but I decide to take care of it from my phone since I’m on the go and it’s easier.

I enter “stolen license plate” in the app’s search bar. The app understands that my license plate was stolen, and suggests guiding me through everything I need to do to take care of the process.

First, I select which vehicle the license plate was stolen from (the app already knows who I am and which vehicles I own, so I just select the car and don’t need to enter any additional information about it).

The app then asks a few questions about the incident — what happened, and when. With my permission, the app submits a formal report to my local police department. The app also submits a copy of the incident report to the DMV.

The app tells me that to get new license plate and registration stickers, I need to pay a fee. I do this quickly right through the app.

The app tells me that my new license plate and registration stickers will arrive in the mail in about two weeks. In the meantime, if I get pulled over, I can show any law officer a digital copy of the police report right from my CA GOV app to prove that my license plate was stolen. I should stop by any police station to surrender my one remaining license plate.

It’s 8:44 - I might still make it to work on time!

The California DMV That Is - What I Actually Had To Do

October 9th, 8:32 AM - Oh no! My license plate has been stolen. This sucks. I hope I won’t be late to work.

I google “california stolen license plate”, which brings me to the DMV’s page about “obtaining duplicate or substitute” license plates:

Source: https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/vr/checklists/dup_sub

OK. Looks like I need to fill out form REG 156. I can’t do that from my phone - bummer. I go back to my apartment, download the form, print it out, and painstakingly fill it out, including basic information like my name, driver’s license number, the license plate number etc.

I feel a little uneasy. Can I just keep driving until I get a replacement plate - without my registration stickers? Don’t I need to file a police report?

I google some more. I come across a helpful Q&A in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Why is a short Q&A published in The San Diego Union-Tribune 8 years ago more informative than the DMV’s own website?

I go on the LAPD’s website, and start submitting a police report online. I painstakingly fill out all of the information, including the same basic information I had filled out on the DMV’s REG 156 just a few minutes ago - my name, address, the vehicle license plate etc. After I have filled out the whole form, the website tells me that this type of report cannot be submitted online. Well, that’s 10 minutes wasted.

October 9th, 9:13 am - I go to my local police station. I wait in line. When I am finally able to speak to an officer, I dictate to him the same information that I have already filled out twice — once on the DMV form, and again on the police report online. The police officer enters this into his computer. He calls the DMV, and reads all of the same information to them over the phone. He makes a mistake in the spelling of my name, and I correct him. The police officer gives me a copy of the police report so that I can show it to any law officer if they ask me why I am driving with no plates. The officer then tells me that I have to go to the DMV.

October 9th, 10:09 am - I get to the nearest DMV office. Because I do not have an appointment, the estimated wait time is three hours. I decide to go to work instead, because I’m already late and have a lot to get done.

October 9th, 12:52 pm - I access the DMV website from my work computer with the intention of making an appointment as soon as possible at my local DMV office. The website tells me that I can make an appointment at any time in the next three months, and gives me a few options - do I want to pick a specific date, or just get the soonest available appointment?

The DMV graphics are right out of 1999 - and so is its website's user-friendliness. Source: https://www.dmv.ca.gov/wasapp/foa/clear.do?goTo=officeVisit&localeName=en

I ask the website to show me the soonest available appointments. It tells me there are no appointments available at any time. Huh.

I try a different DMV office near me, and again ask for the soonest available appointment. The website tells me there are no appointments available at any time. Hmmm.

I try a third DMV office near me, again asking for the soonest available appointment. I get offered one at 2pm on a Wednesday two months from today. I accept it with relief. Blessed be the DMV for granting us the privilege of walking through its doors.

December 12th, 1:55pm - On the date of the appointment, I show up to the DMV. After waiting for half an hour (“not bad,” I say, my expectations having been set), I get seen at the window. I show the clerk a copy of the police report and the filled out form REG 156, both of which I thankfully remembered to bring.

The clerk types everything from the printed-out form into his computer, processes payment, and hands me new license plates and registration stickers.

The whole process has taken me at least six hours spread out over two months.

Parting Thoughts

That app sounds futuristic and crazy, doesn’t it? It does to me - but only because my expectations are so low.

The government of Southern Australia is on the ball. Source: https://my.sa.gov.au

After writing the first draft of this post, my friend pointed out that Southern Australia has an app that looks a whole lot like what I’ve described above.

California is the home of the most innovative companies in the world. Why shouldn’t we expect our DMV to be just as innovative and user-friendly as our corporations?

Everything in the futuristic, best-case scenario described in the first section above is easily achievable with technology readily available today. All we need is some good ol’ pioneering spirit.

Let’s get it done, Gavin!

Under Governor Newsom, California has launched several ambitious public technology initiatives, including a new Office of Digital Innovation, which “will have the authority to develop and enforce requirements for departments to assess their service delivery models and underlying business processes from an end-user perspective.”

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Patrick Atwater and ARGO for nudging me to write this piece and helping me put it together.

Krystof Litomisky's Picture

About Krystof Litomisky

Krystof is an engineer, adventurer, and all-around good guy based in Los Angeles, California.

Los Angeles, California