Shorter lines at the RMV shouldn’t come at the expense of safety

In December 2015, Governor Charlie Baker spoke about improvements in customer service at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
In December 2015, Governor Charlie Baker spoke about improvements in customer service at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2015/Globe Staff

Perhaps no governor has spoken more fervently about reducing the wait times at the Registry of Motor Vehicles than Charlie Baker.

“The Registry, anybody been there lately? Think it needs a lot of work? Me, too,” Baker said in a 2015 Globe interview.

The problem is, nobody ever died waiting in line at the RMV.

Yet seven people were killed when the RMV failed to pull the license of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a 23-year-old West Springfield truck driver who faces negligent homicide charges after crashing into a group of motorcycle riders in Randolph, N.H., last month.

The RMV should have revoked Zhukovskyy’s Massachusetts commercial driver’s license in May, after he was charged with drunken driving in Connecticut. Instead, the paper notification from Connecticut, along with tens of thousands of similar letters from other states, sat ignored among 53 bins piled up in a records room of the RMV’s Quincy headquarters since March of last year.

That’s not efficiency. That’s abject failure.


Lost in all of Baker’s happy headlines about shorter RMV lines under his watch — 84 percent of people served in under 30 minutes in June, compared with 59 percent in 2014 — is this: What the RMV giveth is just as important in what it taketh away.

Baker made us believe we wanted a customer-friendly Registry, and we do — but not as much as we want safe roads. We want to feel confident that when we get into our cars with our kids that the state has done all it can to take dangerous drivers off the streets. That shouldn’t be too much to expect. But as evidenced by the tragedy in New Hampshire, it apparently is.

This week, we learned that at least 540 drivers should have had their Massachusetts licenses suspended after being caught allegedly driving under the influence in other states. Those drivers were allowed to stay on our roads. They were accidents waiting to happen.


It makes me wonder whether the RMV’s greater responsibilities got short shrift in an agency addicted to touting reduced wait times under a governor who viewed that as part of his political legacy.

Consider these stats from the RMV: Of Massachusetts’ 5.2 million licensed drivers, the Registry issued suspensions for 144,301 drivers in fiscal year 2019, which just ended. More than half of those suspensions were for infractions such as nonpayment and administrative issues, while the others were for serious offenses like operating under the influence or motor vehicular homicide. In May alone, the Registry dealt with 2,221 operating-under-the-influence suspensions.

Last spring, the RMV was mired in another controversy: the fallout from a new software system that was full of bugs, and the rollout of the Real ID license. The combination made wait times soar to several hours for some customers.

The new software was installed in March 2018, the same month the RMV stopped processing paper alerts from other states and signed up for a voluntary electronic notification system created by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The state hasn’t been able to explain why RMV personnel stopped processing alerts, even though the majority of states have not gone to electronic alerts and still send paper notifications.

Who’s accountable? Registrar Erin Deveney, appointed by Baker in 2015, resigned last week as the scandal began to surface. On Tuesday, Baker didn’t sugarcoat the mistakes.


“I view what happened at the RMV as a complete failure,” he told reporters. “While there’s been tremendous progress made in a variety of areas around the front of the house that has to do with customer service, this is a tremendous failure. . . . And the goal at this point is to get it fixed as quickly as possible.”

It’s also time to reset the values of the RMV. Public safety shouldn’t be a trade-off for shorter lines.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.