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State bill pushes for more online DOL services to reduce backlog

Rush hour traffic is light during the morning commute heading in and out of Seattle on Interstate 5 on March 15, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The state Department of Licensing (DOL) believes it will have a backlog of nearly 1.5 million requests by the end of the year, if nothing is done to address the problem caused by pandemic.

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Teens trying to get their first licenses, commercial drivers trying to renew their CDL’s, everyone who needs to resolve something at the DOL knows how hard that is right now. The offices were closed for half of last year, and they are only taking appointments. Even with some fast-tracking measures Governor Inslee approved last year, the DOL believes there is a current backlog of more than 400,000 transactions. The DOL’s Beau Perschbacher told the Senate Transportation Committee on Monday that something needs to be done.

“Because our offices had to be shut down and we’re now only open at about 35% capacity with the physical distancing requirements and staffing challenges, we think it will be over five years to get back to equilibrium with our current capacity,” he said.

Senator Marko Liias has proposed a bill (SB 5270) at the DOL’s request that would address this backlog.

“This bill attempts to take some of the best parts of what we’ve learned during the COVID response and put them into law and reduce the backlog significantly from there,” he said.

The bill would extend the current driver’s license term from six years to eight years. It would only require a new photo every 16 years, and people would be able to submit those pictures online. The goal is to expand the online services so the DOL can focus on people who really need to visit an office.

The DOL believes it can eliminate the backlog by the end of next year, if the bill is passed and the changes made.

Alexis Young represents the licensing service representatives you see at the offices. She doesn’t believe the backlog is as bad as the DOL says it is.

“This is kind of an over-reaction to a temporary problem,” she testified. “I mean, we’ve had one year of COVID that’s caused five years until equilibrium. That doesn’t add up to me.”

Young is worried going online with more services will cost her members their jobs. She is also concerned that without face-to-face interactions, people who shouldn’t be driving might slip through the cracks.

“LSR’s not only issue IDs, they serve as screeners,” Young said. “They keep people that should not be driving off the road by assessing whether they’re competent to drive.”

Now to the elephant in the room: people posting their own pictures for this vital form of identification.

I know your mind probably thought of the worst selfies you can imagine, or the potential fraud of fake pictures. The DOL’s Perschbacher said the same security available at the offices will be available online.

“People are not uploading photos,” he said. “The photo capture is through our license expressed application, so there are a lot of security features in the background to make sure that there is a live person in front of the camera, that their identity matches when they were in our office, using our existing facial recognition technology.”

Police agencies are also concerned about fake photos and the length between requiring a photo. A lot can change in 16 years.

The cost of licenses would go up, if this legislation passes, but the DOL said it will even out since you will need fewer licenses over time.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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