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Oregon Lawmakers Urge Better Service At The DMV

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Like all DMV offices in Oregon, this Salem location is open Monday through Friday only.

No one likes to wait in line. But sometimes, you don't have a choice -- like maybe when you want a driver’s license.

Here in the Northwest, the average wait time at a DMV is going up ... or going down, depending on which state you’re in. In Washington, wait times are one-quarter of what they were a few years ago. While in Oregon, standing in line at the DMV is up dramatically.

My assignment: Head down to the DMV and find people tired of waiting in line. Should be easy, right? But the three times I showed up at the North Salem DMV over the course of a week, there was no soul-crushing line-up of people winding out the door.

Instead, the typical wait time was "about ten minutes."

Maybe the snow kept the lines down. Or maybe these folks just got lucky. The truth is, according to DMV's own stats, the amount of time people spend in line has nearly doubled over the past four years. The statewide average is around 16 minutes. But it frequently exceeds an hour in larger locations.

One Oregon lawmaker wants that to change that.

“Why not raise the bar?” asks Republican state Representative Kevin Cameron.

"There are certain things you have to use the retail DMV offices to do," he says. "And they're very inconvenient for people who work Monday through Friday."

It doesn’t help that the number of front-line workers has dropped. And as of two years ago, no Oregon DMV offices are open on Saturdays. Cameron says having to re-arrange your work schedule only to end up standing in a long line doesn't make people too fond of state government. And it’s not as if customers have a choice:

"I can't go someplace else to get my driver's license fixed,” says Cameron.

Cameron has introduced a bill that would study customer service at the DMV and looks for ways to improve it, like weekend hours.

Oregon DMV officials say they already survey customers and that the vast majority of them rate the overall service as good or excellent. But DMV Chief Tom McClellan says the longer the wait, the lower the satisfaction.

"When our wait time goes above about 15 minutes, the percentage of people that are satisfied with wait times across the state drops," he says.

Maybe disgruntled Oregonians should hop over the border to Washington.

"The longer customers have to wait, the less they feel they are being helped, " explains Washington’s Department of Licensing's Christine Anthony. "Our wait times in 2012 went from highs of 46 minutes down to a statewide average of 10 minutes today."

She says the drop is due to a major shift in how Washington tests new drivers. Instead of coming in to a state office, most applicants take the exam at a private driving school. Anthony says many of those schools offer evening and weekend hours, unlike the state-run sites.

She says the Department had a specific goal. "It was strictly to reduce the amount of time that customers had to wait in our office."

Oregon is experimenting with shifting some of its testing to private driving schools, but most people will still have to come in to a DMV office to get their license.

At the North Salem DMV office, Jason Hinton walks away from the counter after helping his step-daughter get her learning permit. He confirms what the other customers told me: Today was a pretty good day to visit the DMV.

"I'd say the longest I've ever waited was about an hour and a half, but it was super busy," he says. "But typically it's about 15 minutes."

Hinton's step-daughter, by the way, passed the test. She could be behind the wheel at this very moment.