How to Avoid the DMV

Our latest newsletter looks at the ways the California Department of Motor Vehicles is trying to improve and the ways the state's residents are attempting to avoid it. 

California residents wait in line at a Department of Motor Vehicles office.
Getty Images

How much would you pay for the perfect vanity plate? What if that purchase meant you could avoid visiting the DMV?

Reviver Auto, a Silicon Valley company, has created a digital license plate that may soon offer both of those perks. Already in use in California and Arizona, and recently green-lit in Michigan, the Rplate has a screen that can be customized to feature that clever alphanumeric statement you’ve always had in mind, or the logo of a favorite sports team or social cause. In his article “Bonfire of the Vanity Plates,” Alta contributor Josh McHugh examines this new technology and explains why you just might pay $799 for it.

Perhaps most exciting about digital license plates is the possibility of uploading one’s registration instantly. The Rplate’s virtual registration sticker might one day put an end to the annual Department of Motor Vehicles ordeal—one of those life necessities that most of us find agonizing. Even getting a registration sticker sent through the mail seems like an outdated system for such a common practice.

Californians might think we have the country’s worst DMV (except for those of us lucky enough to use the secret DMV office in Sacramento), but we’d be wrong. According to (an unaffiliated website), a 10-month national customer-satisfaction survey released last year ranked Oregon’s lowest. The Beaver State scored poorly in telephone customer service, price of services, wait times, and in-person customer service. Ouch! Ohio’s DMV scored highest in the nation. states, “The best and worst performing states are outlined in the map below,” but as of this writing—in seeming homage to the actual DMV—the map image is broken, so we can’t see where California ranks. However, this look at the best and worst DMV offices in the state, complete with wait times by hour of day and days of the week, is fascinating. Spoiler alert: steer clear of the Los Angeles DMV on a Friday afternoon.

While apparently not as bad as Oregon’s, California’s DMV offices are notoriously horrible, and they’re currently made worse by the fact that anyone wishing to board an airplane after September 2020 will need to have registered in-person for a “Real ID.” Last week, the Sacramento Bee obtained a 110-page report produced by the DMV and sent to state legislators. The report detailed such departmental problems as “obsolete tools” and “inadequate training” and suggested solutions including a $10 million marketing campaign and website redesign. A state audit released last March found similar issues. And then, of course, there was the DMV employee who napped at her desk every day for three hours.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s revised California state budget earmarked an extra $163 million for the DMV, but that money looks to be stuck in traffic. Politicians aren’t sure the DMV can spend it wisely, and Newsom, who appointed an emergency strike team to get to the bottom of the department’s drama, wants to wait and see what it finds.

Meanwhile, it remains so difficult to score an appointment and avoid the line at a California DMV that some people are selling their reservations online. The Golden State might be home to innovations like digital license plates, but when it comes to getting anything done with the Department of Motor Vehicles, Californians should be prepared to wait.     

This article originally appeared in the May 23, 2019 Alta newsletter

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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