Utah’s in-person driver license renewal is likely to be changed because of the coronavirus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A long line of cars at the South Valley Division of Motor Vehicles in Draper on Friday, April 10, 2020. The same kind of lines and long waits are not being seen at Utah Driver License offices, officials there say.

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Marla Mott-Smith, 82, of South Jordan — who has been self-isolating from everyone but her family to protect against COVID-19 — isn’t happy that Utah still requires her to appear in person to renew her driver license.

“I had an appointment to go in to renew my license before it expired on March 27. Then COVID-19 struck,” she said. “I looked at posts online about people who had gone in. There was no control at the door, and no sanitizing. There were long lines. That was alarming. So, there was no way I was going in.”

She adds that she isn’t eligible to renew online, because Utah rules and the federal REAL ID Act require people to appear every other renewal period to ensure that photos are fresh. Also, people older than 65 must have an eye exam (or have a doctor submit a form). “I’m moving out of state soon and need a license” for the travel, she said.

Chris Caras, director of the Utah Driver License Division, says it is aware of such problems for people at high risk for contracting the coronavirus, and is seeking ways to help them — but none has been implemented yet. But the agency is taking steps to make visits safer.

“We have been exploring the possibility of allowing individuals at high risk to initiate an application electronically and be placed in kind of a pending status so we could issue them a temporary license for six months,” he said. “Then sometime in that six months, we would have them appear for a photograph.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Driver License Division director Chris Caras on Oct. 1, 2019.

Caras said the division is still reviewing whether it has the power to make that change, and whether it would comply with the federal REAL ID Act. The Legislature has included such a procedure among a list of items it may consider approving in an upcoming special session beginning this week.

Meanwhile, Caras said the division is taking steps to improve safety for workers and patrons.

When visitors arrive now, they are asked what services they need. They are given a number and sent back to their cars to wait. When their turn arrives, they are called by cellphone — or a worker notifies them at their car.

“We changed where they wait from the lobby to their cars” to help with social distancing, he said.

Caras adds that he believes many people have seen pictures of long lines of cars (with up to five-hour waits) for drive-thru windows at the Division of Motor Vehicles, where car registration is handled, and mistakenly think those lines are at the Driver License Division.

“We’re not having people wait multiple hours. I would be surprised if we had somebody waiting an hour for any services in our offices as of yet,” he said. He said DMV has such long lines because it is offering only drive-up service and has only five locations with those windows.

Of note, the Legislature also is looking at fixes for those DMV lines. That includes perhaps allowing affirmative defense or a “fix it” ticket for people driving with an expired registration if they obtain it within a certain time frame, or also possibly temporarily suspending emissions testing requirements to help with social distancing.

The Driver License Division has taken other steps to help its social distancing, which may create inconvenience for some.

It canceled taking appointments. Caras said that interfered with efforts to ensure that only a safe number of people could be in its offices at a given time, which is more easily handled by allowing people to show up and giving them numbers for service as they wait in cars.

It also is asking drivers who seek a standard license renewal to wait until a week before expiration to come in. While that may seem counterintuitive, Caras said it allows knowing what the demand will be and allows proper staffing in offices to address it.

Also, the Driver License Division has temporarily suspended offering driving tests needed for most new drivers to obtain licenses.

“There’s no way we can social distance when we’re in a vehicle with close quarters,” Caras said.

But some types of driving tests are still offered, such as for motorcycles. “We’re not on the bike with them. We [are] standing to give instructions and observing.”

He said some tests for commercial driver licenses are also offered because they do not require evaluators to be in the cab.