Thursday, August 23, 2018

How the Driver Responsibility surcharge contributes to long lines at DPS license centers

One of our legislator friends reached out this week to ask about a comment Grits made in this roundup related to long lines at Texas driver-license megacenters around the state. Your correspondent believes that unnecessary driver-license revocations and understaffing of civilian DPS customer-service functions are the main causes of long lines at DPS license centers.

This legislator wanted to know, could Grits quantify how much extra pressure people with revoked licenses put on the system? Not precisely. But let's attempt a ballpark, back-of-the-napkin estimate, and also elaborate on the call-center problem.

Phone-center flaws force unnecessary visits to DL centers
First, how many people are headed to the DPS for license renewals anyway? And how many are required to be there? There are roughly 16 million licensed drivers in Texas. Those drivers must renew their licenses every seven years, so each year ~2-2/7 million annually must renew their licenses. Half of those can do so online, so the baseline minimum number of people coming in for this service is around 1-1/7 million, or ~1.14 million people.

The Dallas News reported that, "According to the Department of Public Safety, more than 3.6 million people who visited DPS offices in 2017 didn't need to do so." But framing the issue that way amounts to DPS blaming drivers for its own failed systems. In fact, a large number of these unnecessary visits occur because people cannot get help on the phone. According to the most recent DPS Strategic Plan, currently the DPS customer service center (CSC):
receives approximately 24,400 calls per day, but because of limited staff and technology it is only able to answer approximately 4,880 of those calls, 20% of the demand. The CSC is currently only able to answer about 17% of these 4,880 calls within 10 minutes, far below an acceptable customer service level. Customers are forced to call the CSC multiple times to enter the queue to speak with a Customer Service Representative (CSR). Once in the queue, customers must wait an average of 15 minutes before their call is answered. 
Unfortunately, DPS has so far focused on beefing up staffing at the driver-license centers instead of the Customer Service Center.

Increasing call-center staffing - Grits would suggest by six-to-eight-fold, if you truly want to keep up with demand - would significantly reduce lines at the driver-license center. But even that wouldn't solve the whole problem.

The contribution of license revocations to long lines
DPS issues more than 5 million licenses per year, according to its latest biennial report (p.12). Renewals make up ~2.3 million, another 650,000 or so are first-time licensees, and about a half-million commercial drivers licenses are issued annually. So those categories account for ~3.45 of slightly more than 5 million licenses issued.

The next biggest category of licenses issued - although DPS doesn't quantify it in their public documentation - are people with revoked licenses trying to get them back. How many people are we talking about?

DPS suspends roughly half a million licenses per year, they told the Sunset Commission last year (p. 419-420): "In FY 2016, there were 432,847 driver improvement suspensions and 77,611 safety responsibility suspensions."

Over time, these suspensions add up. As of November 2016, DPS told the Sunset Commission, a total of 3,082,627 drivers had been assessed 16,505,923 DRP surcharges since the program's inception. Of those 3 million, "Approximately 1.4 million drivers are currently suspended for non-payment."

On top of that, another ~300,000 have lost their licenses solely for non-payment of traffic fines. All told, about 1.7 million Texans - more than 10 percent of licensed drivers - have had their licenses suspended for nonpayment of either traffic tickets or the Driver Responsibility surcharge, the Washington Post reported earlier this year, noting that, "Texas, by far, suspends the most driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines."

So, there are ~3.45 million licenses issued for renewals, first timers, and CDLs, but 1.7 million people who also need to have their licence reinstated because of a suspension. They don't all try every year, but hundreds of thousands certainly do, with the number growing annually. And since these can be complicated situations, they may require multiple visits. When my daughter had her license suspended for an unpaid surcharge a few years back, she had to go to DPS several times before it was all resolved.

Moreover, it's possible for some of those 1.7 million to have licenses issued and suspended multiple times within the same year. Say, for example, a person has had their license suspended for failure to pay a Driver Responsibility surcharge. They approach DPS to get on a payment plan, their license is reinstated, but six months later they quit making payments and their license is revoked again. Then, say that three months after that, the person resumes payments and seeks to have their license reinstated. That would account for two licenses issued - to someone who otherwise likely wouldn't need it renewed at all that year - in just a few months time.

I can't quantify it precisely, but that's a big chunk of the problem.

Other trends and caveats
Grits would also caveat DPS' claim that population growth is driving licensing waits. Yes, Texas' population is growing, but a lower proportion of young people are getting driver licenses. According to a 2016 study, "For 16- through 44-year-olds, there was a continuous decrease in the percentage of persons with a driver’s license for the years examined. For example, the percentages for 20- to 24-year-olds in 1983, 2008, 2011, and 2014 were 91.8%, 82.0%, 79.7%, and 76.7%, respectively." Similarly, the number of people aged 45-69 with a driver license has been decreasing for the last decade, said the same study. People over 70 were the only category where the proportion of people with licenses increased until 2011, when it began to slightly decline.

This trend substantially mitigates population growth. If young people were getting licenses at the same proportion as in 1983, when your correspondent got his learner's permit, imagine how much more overwhelmed the license centers would be!!

DPS faces a big job managing Texas' driver licenses. But the job is made more complicated and the volume is increased substantially by the use of driver licenses for debt collection (and, more broadly, virtue signalling) as opposed to simply ensuring drivers are qualified and providing reliable identification. California last year addressed the same issue by ceasing use of driver-license suspensions to punish non-payment

Texas leaders have responded to long lines at driver-license centers by throwing more money at the problem to build mega-centers and beef up license-center staffing. More staff is certainly needed in the short term (although if Grits ran the show, I'd focus more on staffing the Customer Service Centers). But even additional staff investments won't fix underlying structural issues regarding revoked licenses. That's a function of the failed Driver Responsibility surcharge and using driver-license revocations for punishment. Like the DPS staffing budget, those polices can only be addressed by the Texas Legislature.


Baron of Greymatter said...

We need more heroes like this freedom fighter.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

While I understand his frustration, Baron, and yours, I'm not sure how that's going to make the lines shorter. And it's not like the people (read: legislators) responsible for the problems were the ones who had to clean feces off the walls. To me, the better solution is responsible governance, as opposed to irresponsible protest.

Anonymous said...

Maybe just a drop in the relative bucket but what about the nearly 100,000 registrants required to go in at least once a year for mandatory DL or ID renewal? Changing the law to allow for online renewal just like everyone else would immediately remove nearly 100,000 bodies from the lines, no?

Anonymous said...

Best part are the signs posted on the walls and counters reminding them that any 'vulgar' or 'disruptive' language is illegal and will be prosecuted. Please, allow us to force these long lines on you and then arrest you when you are 'disruptive.'

Anonymous said...

Registrants who in that same month will also go to the local police to give the same information which will then be turned over to a DPS database.

Mary Sue Molnar said...

Thousands and thousands of people who are required to register as ‘sex offenders’ must renew their DL or ID IN PERSON every single year. There is no public safety benefit. Photos on the public sex offender registry are not generated from the DPS driver’s license office so what’s the point of in-person renewal? Texas needs to adjust the law, allow registered citizens to renew online or by phone, and shorten those darn lines. This may not solve the long-line problem but it would definitely put a dent in it.

Anonymous said...

Or close all the local police registration offices which sometimes have months long waiting lidts and let them register at DPS any day of the week... Either way the redundancy is stupid.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Mary Sue - registered citizens are required to renew yearly in person. Research shows that many of the laws passed do not make the public safer. Follow the money, how does yearly renewal make the general public safer? It does not, it just makes money. On-line renewal vs phone renewal just because of the long phone wait times.

Anonymous said...

What person is most responsible for having created this surcharge?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:19, indirectly, Rick Perry. It was originally the way he wanted to finance his Trans Texas Corridor. Then, when the TTC collapsed under its own weight and the bill died. The Lege passed the funding mechanism anyway, and split the proceeds between trauma hospitals, the state's general revenue fund, and a private contractor. The legislators who carried the bill are all gone now. The two House co-authors - Mike Krussee and Sylvester Turner - have both said the law was a mistake and should be repealed.

Anonymous said...

Had to go in for my 12 year DL renewal, smaller town so the wait was only 1 1/2 hours for my 10 minute renewal. Somewhere along the way the state of Texas has decided you can't have both a DL and a Texas ID (I've had both for a while just in case you lose one). So while it's a very minor annoyance I have to surrender my ID in order to get a DL renewal, mind you I wasn't offered a partial refund on the ID.

It's this type of BS that the Republicans were supposed to stop, instead it just keeps getting worse.

George said...


Who the hell told you that the Republicans were supposed to stop any of this crap? Politicians will sell hogs any day of the week and make you feel honored to buy them as well.

As long as both parties can keep the divisiveness alive and well then they all prosper and keep the status quo. This is the way things evidently were designed, keep the average citizen semi satisfied by throwing 'em some rancid meat every now and then, and fighting against each other. It takes our attention off of their double-dealing, lying and corrupt ways. It ain't a Republican or Democrat thing either -- they're both guilty as hell.

Anonymous said...

@5:58, it's called sarcasm.