2.5 Hours in the "Improved" Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald | Jan 04, 2016

"Governor Charlie Baker," reads the piece in last week's Boston Globe, "who ran last year on a platform of making government more efficient and effective, crowed in a Monday news conference about how well a new queuing system is working to get people in and out of the RMV more quickly."

I'm reading this as a second hour ticks past on a hard, pine bench at the Milford Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Naturally, the Registry of Motor Vehicles is located here, and not in nearby Framingham, a town people have actually heard of. No, that branch of the Registry of Motor Vehicles was closed a few years back, most likely because it was convenient to get to.

The Governor cited improvements to the RMV including "two simple, color-coded queues — a green 'Ready to Go Line' for people who have their paperwork in order and an orange line for folks who need more help or are performing lengthier transactions."

Like parachute pants and and the fax modem, Governor Baker's touted improvements haven't quite made it to the Milford RMV yet.

The first Rubicon I have to cross is the greeter. According to the Boston Globe article citing Baker's improvements, "The RMV has also channeled Apple retail stores, placing a greeter near the door to help people figure out what paperwork they need for their transaction, say converting an out-of-state license, and directing them to the right queue, depending on whether their forms are in order."

Is it me, or is citing the Apple Store as the zenith of efficiency wildly prophetic?

Hour three of captivity: Morale is low. (Courtesy of Maebmij via commons.wikipedia.org)

The greeter's job is -- ostensibly -- to look over my paperwork to see if anything is amiss. She does, deems it ready to go, and slides me a number with an estimated wait time of one hour and fifteen minutes.

There's a pizza joint next door, so I sauntered over there for a steak and cheese while I waited.

I cite America's relentless entrepreurial spirit for this vast improvement. Registries used to be located in vast, wind-blown steppes of nothingness, where no business could flourish, but at least at the Milford branch, some scrappy Capitalist has hung out his pizza-shaped shingle facing a captive audience. There's also a tattoo shop in the same building, so I could get that full sleeve I've been eyeing in the time it takes to process my plate transfer.

At least the sandwich was good! (Phil Denton)

One delicious steak bomb downed and I'm back inside, awaiting my number -- A178 -- to flash on the deli counter sign. 30 minutes pass. Another 30 minutes pass. People around me are making the kind of dark jokes you crack when your plane encounters belly-gripping turbulence. It is at this time that I noticed that while there are a dozen terminals RMV employees could use to move thorugh the hundreds of people waiting, only four have people working at them, and one of those is reserved for taking license photos.

My phone has gone from 77% to 8% charge. (In all fairness, it's an iPhone, so that could have been 11 minutes, but trust me, it was two hours and eight minutes.)

Finally, A178! I stride to the counter past all the other suckers and chumps with higher numbers than me. I have my preapproved paperwork and my checkbook, because like approximately nine other businesses in America, the Registry doesn't take credit cards for this type of transaction. They will take a credit card for a license, but for a registration, it's cash or check only, just like 1956. The Capitalists at the pizza joint and the tattoo parlor both conspicuously advertise their ATM inside in case you weren't aware of this financial anomaly.

If paying by check was good enough for the founding fathers, it's good enough for the Registry of Motor Vehicles! (photo credit: National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution)

I hand my papers to the desk clerk and in 30 seconds -- the only quick movement in this cobweb-laced hellhole of government bureaucracy -- he informs me: "There's a problem with this paperwork."

EXHIBIT A: The offending conjunction. (Craig Fitzgerald)

He points out that the RMV-1 Form suggests my wife's new-to-her 2003 BMW 530i will be registered to "Lisa Whelan AND Craig Fitzgerald," while the New Hampshire Title Reassignment Form TDMV-17A says it's going to be registered to "Lisa Whelan OR Craig Fitzgerald."

Without further discussion, he sends me packing. No emotion. No empathy. Just keep quiet and come back when you get a paper that says "AND" on it.

By Jove, you've foiled my dastardly gambit, RMV Robot Number 27!

It was my sole intent to use that "OR" as the linchpin of a nefarious plot, wherein at some point in the distant future, I would sell the car out from under my wife, and she would no longer be able to drive to work and I --  YES I -- would have to drive her to wor...wait a minute, that's a stupid plan that NOBODY WOULD EVER EXECUTE.

Lisa's new ride, after our blogger executes his cunning plan to mis-register her car. (Henning 48, Wikipedia)

Yes, I understand. "OR" and "AND" are different words, with wholly different connotations. I was an English major, after all. It's my only skill. But when I lived in Vermont -- where the toughest question I was ever asked at the DMV was "Will this check clear?" -- a non-robot with the capacity to understand that this is a clerical error would've stricken the offending "OR" with a black pen, scratched "AND" over it, placed two initials next to it and moved on.

In Massachusetts, that does not happen. I have registered cars here for 24 of my 31 car-owning years, and I have been refused registrations for such egregious crimes as:

  • A fold
  • A staple hole in the corner of a title
  • A signature too far below a signature line
  • A correction
  • Wite-Out

I would say that the Massachusetts RMV is as close as any of you are ever going to get to Ellis Island, but that's unfair. At Ellis Island, they didn't care whether your birth certificate, immunization records and last electric bill said "Giuseppe Sangiovese," you were "Joe Smith" from here on out.Charlie Baker, if you're reading this, I love the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with all my heart and soul. I proudly call it my home.

But the Registry of Motor Vehicles has been a state-wide embarrassment for 50 years. If you're measuring improvements qualatatively,

  • I was given a time estimate that was approximately 100 percent incorrect.
  • The greeter failed to find the conjunction that caused such offense at the window.
  • In the Globe article, your stated goal was to make the Registry experience "one they can expect will only take about 30 minutes or so out of their day." My experience overshot that by a factor of four. I lost more than two hours of productivity for THREE LETTERS.

All around, this experience was a failure, and by no means was it isolated. You ran a business, sir. If it operated the way the RMV always has, and still very clearly does now, it would've been plowed under, perhaps for one of those new and improved Chipotle's that doesn't give you intestinal cramps.

Whatever strides you've made with your green and orange queues have barely scratched the surface. You need to demand wholesale reform that empowers actual human beings to make a the call on a clerical error and save the people of this Commonwealth from wasting hours of their time.

Either that, or we all just start writing out license numbers on the backs of pizza boxes, because I know for sure the pizza guy next door can deliver a product.


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