Kafka Goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles

Stephen Miller recounts the whims of the DMV.

September 17, 2017

A 40-year-old woman—my daughter—applied for a New York driver’s license. The process
began in June. Three months later, she still has no license, owing to bureaucratic regulations.
Fifteen years ago my daughter lived in New York and had a license there. She kept it when she
went to Indiana for law school. But when she moved to Los Angeles after graduation, she got a
California license. Last year she moved back to New York, but she had lost her California
license, so she submitted documentation showing her driving record was unblemished. “I’m
sorry,” an employee at the New York Department of Motor Vehicles told her, “but we cannot
issue you a New York driver’s license.”

Why? She was told her New York license had been suspended a decade ago because she hadn’t
paid an Indiana speeding ticket. She thought she had paid the fine. “Why would California issue
me a driver’s license if my New York license was suspended?” she asked.

“Some states talk to each other about driver’s licenses, some don’t,” the employee replied.
She called the Indiana court. It turned out she’d sent a check for the fine, but the court accepted
payments only by credit card. The court returned the check, but it never reached her, probably
because it was sent to an old address.

Now that the problem was diagnosed, it could easily be resolved, right? She paid the fine. The
Indiana court reported this to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which sent a letter to the
New York DMV saying that her case had cleared. Two weeks later she called the New York
DMV to inquire about her application.

“I’m sorry but your case has not cleared,” she was told. “We received the letter, but we are not
allowed to accept letters—only faxes.”

She called Indiana and asked for a fax. “I am sorry, but we are not allowed to send faxes—only
letters.”

So the regulations of Indiana and New York conflict.

It gets worse. The New York DMV suggested asking the Indiana court to send her an official
document saying that the case had cleared. “I’m sorry,” the court said, “but we can only send
official documents to Indianapolis. You should ask the New York DMV to call us to confirm that
your case has been cleared.” The New York DMV—of course!—said that wasn’t an option: “We
cannot make phone calls on driver’s license questions.”

Many Americans, I’m certain, have had similar encounters with government bureaucracy, which
suggests this is a great drag on American productivity.

Though my daughter could not get an official document from the Indiana court, she did get a
receipt listing the ticket number and confirming the fine was paid. Six weeks ago she faxed that
to the New York DMV. So far no response. She plans to call but keeps putting it off. Kafka
would have understood.

Mr. Miller’s latest book is “Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt
Whitman to Teju Cole. ”

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