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What's next for the 700,000 Texans whose driver's licenses have expired during COVID

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 7/10/2020 By Gordon Dickson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Driver’s licenses belonging to about 700,000 Texans have expired during the past four months of the pandemic, and some motorists are expressing dread on social media about the prospect of visiting a Department of Public Safety office to get their lapsed cards renewed.

“People should not have to choose with going to renew their DL and being safe especially if they are high risk,” a Dallas resident named Ashley wrote on her Twitter feed, @gaksak.

But could the days of spending long lines at the DPS office soon be little more than a bad memory?

The experience of visiting a driver’s license office is a classic example of a tedious, bureaucratic task. Customers are held in large waiting areas, often for hours at a time, to conduct transactions that seem like they ought to be easier.

But the COVID crisis is providing state officials with an opportunity to permanently change the way driver’s license transactions are handled.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, the state agency that handles licensing for drivers, is transitioning to an appointment-only system for all driver’s license services. DPS was actually taking steps to convert to a more robust appointment system before the pandemic, an official said — but the coronavirus forced the agency to speed up those plans.

“Planning for the appointment solution began in the spring of 2019. All DL offices will operate by appointment only moving forward,” a DPS spokesman said in an email. “The new appointment system allows customers to schedule appointments up to six months in advance and are available to customers at all DL offices.”

The agency began opening its offices in phases starting May 26. Initially, residents were invited to go online and sign up for an appointment-only visit — but only for a limited number of services, including obtaining new driver’s licenses or taking a driving test.

This week, the DPS expanded their offerings by inviting those with expired licenses to come in and renew them.

So far, more than 705,000 appointments have been scheduled, records show. Appointments are being taken through the end of the year.

Overall, about 20.3 million Texans have driver’s licenses and another 3.2 million have a state-issued ID card.

Early during the COVID crisis, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an emergency declaration stating that Texas driver’s licenses expiring after March 13 would remain valid for 60 days after the declaration has lifted. The declaration has not yet been lifted, meaning residents whose licenses expired during that period are still considered legal drivers.

The appointment system isn’t working perfectly.

One problem that surfaced quickly was that many Texans who make online appointments don’t keep them. As a result, DPS employees aren’t serving as many people as they could during their work hours — which have been extended to nights and Saturdays, in an effort to clear the state’s backlog of expired licenses.

More than 303,000 customers made appointments between May 26 and July 3, but only 216,000 of those customers showed up, DPS records show. More than 86,500 residents made appointments during that time and were no-shows.

Once the agency figures out how to reduce no-shows, the next big step is getting Texans to use the state’s online system for handling driver’s license transactions more proactively.

Some services are already readily available online, and require no visit whatsoever to a driver’s license office. Those services include routine renewal of a not-yet-expired adult driver’s license, and replacement of lost identification cards.

In those cases, the transaction can be handled online, and the driver’s license can later be shipped by mail.

But many other services — including individual and commercial driving tests, and services for minors with driver’s licenses — can’t be done online. For those folks, here are some tips to help you navigate a visit to the driver’s license office:

? Visit dps.texas.gov and sign up for an appointment at any DPS office. In Tarrant County, the agency operates a Fort Worth Mega Center specifically set up for driver’s license services at 8301 Brentwood Stair Road in east Fort Worth and also has offices in Arlington, Hurst, Lake Worth Mansfield and south Fort Worth.

? Be sure and take all the documentation you need, possibly including your old license (if applicable), proof of residency and any forms that are required to be filled out. If you show up without the proper paperwork, you might have to make another appointment to get your license on a future date.

? Remember that in most cases only the person making the appointment will be allowed in the DPS building, where steps are being taken to preserve social distancing. Exceptions will be made for people with disabilities, those with small children and a handful of other situations.

? If your license is expired, or you don’t have a license yet, don’t drive yourself to the DPS office. If an employee at the DPS office learns that you drove yourself, you could be cited for breaking the law.

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©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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