Hobbled by a bad back, Tom Fitzgerald can’t walk even short distances without stopping to rest.
Getting across a parking lot for groceries or a doctor’s appointment became such an ordeal that in early March he applied for one of those blue placards people with disabilities use to park legally in reserved spaces closest to building entrances.
“I thought it would be a pretty straightforward thing,” he said of the two-page application he filed with the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Fitzgerald’s application inexplicably resulted in his driver’s license being yanked, indefinitely. After months of getting the runaround, Fitzgerald, 67, of Wellesley, e-mailed me for help negotiating an agency he said was “in disarray!”
“I’m one of the casualties,” he wrote.
Here’s what happened, and how it was resolved within hours of my contacting the RMV on Fitzgerald’s behalf:
Fitzgerald says his bad back doesn’t limit his ability to drive, as evidenced by the fact that he drove across the country last year to visit his son on the West Coast. Nevertheless, as part of his application, Fitzgerald’s primary care physician, in an abundance of caution, checked off the box saying that Fitzgerald should be required to take an RMV road test.
The RMV, in what looks like a form letter, told Fitzgerald to schedule a test. But a couple of days later, before he had had a chance to schedule one, a handicapped placard arrived in the mail. It contained Fitzgerald’s name and picture (copied from his driver’s license), a serial number, and an expiration date in 2025.
He figured a road test would not be required, after all, and chalked it up to the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing at the RMV. And he was right.
Three weeks later, Fitzgerald was stunned to received a sternly worded letter ordering him to appear within two weeks at the RMV office at Haymarket Square in Boston. Failure to do so would result in suspension of his license “for an INDEFINITE TIME period,” the letter said.
The next day, April 21, Fitzgerald went to the RMV, where he was met on the sidewalk by an employee because no business was being transacted inside due to the pandemic. He was told to fill out a form requesting a hearing and to go online to check for an available date and time.
Yet there were no hearing dates available before June 30, and the RMV said it was not scheduling anything after that date.
Nor were there appointments available for road tests, because of the coronavirus outbreak. But Fitzgerald had no problem with that. He was perfectly willing to put away the placard the RMV had apparently prematurely mailed to him until after he could pass a road test.
Losing his license was a different matter. That he could not go without.
All he got from the Registry, however, was a dizzying array of advice, much of it contradictory. He spoke to a half-dozen RMV employees on the phone and returned to the Haymarket Square sidewalk three times. Nobody seemed to know what to do.
So, in early May, Fitzgerald reluctantly complied with a new RMV letter ordering him to mail his now-suspended license to them.
After that, he called virtually every day. Sometimes he waited on hold for almost an hour, only to hang up in frustration without speaking to anyone. When he did manage to get someone on the phone, they were often as confused as he was.
“Every time I got through, they would say they were in the process of scheduling a hearing,” he said. “I told them, ‘Hey, I’m in limbo here. I need to get my license back.' But I never got a hearing date.”
On July 8, I e-mailed the RMV. I said Fitzgerald appeared to be in “a strange ‘you can’t get there from here’ RMV world.” I attached copies of two letters Fitzgerald had written to the RMV in June. (He got no reply to either of them.)
Within hours of my e-mail, a high-ranking RMV official called Fitzgerald and apologized profusely. The official told Fitzgerald the RMV was immediately lifting his driver’s license suspension and promised him a road test this week. (He passed it on Wednesday.)
In a reply to me, the RMV took responsibility for botching Fitzgerald’s case. The process for suspending his license should have stopped the moment he filed his request for a hearing.
The Registry official blamed it on a “one-off” case of “human error,” saying that his hearing application was not properly stored in the agency’s computer system initially and that RMV representatives who later had dealings with him hadn’t read the online case notes.
“We will remind our system users to double check that their work is saved and to review all notes placed on customer records,” the RMV said in its e-mail to me.
I’d like to believe this was truly a “one-off” case of human error, though certainly more than one person botched their dealings with Fitzgerald. I’ve done this column for a little more than three years, and in that time, the RMV has been featured three times: for wrongly trying to charge a motorist $11,000 to register his motor vehicle, for wrongly denying a motorist a hearing to contest a no-inspection-sticker citation, and for adding extra expense for some motorists trying to renew their driver’s licenses.
Fitzgerald assumes he’s not alone in experiencing this particular version of the RMV shuffle.
“Sadly, I’m sure there are many others,” he said.