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Drivers who want Real ID say the state encouraged them to skip it

Drivers will need a new type of licence, called Real ID, but there’s confusion on how to get it. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Registry of Motor Vehicles has been encouraging drivers with soon-expiring licenses to renew online, even as it introduces a new type of license that can only be obtained in person starting Monday.

The letters encouraging online renewal sowed confusion among some drivers who say they received them in recent weeks, at a time when the RMV has embarked on a major publicity campaign preparing motorists for the new type of license called Real ID.

In the letters, the agency even warns motorists that the pending but unspecified changes to “renewal requirements” will lead to slower service at RMV branches beginning Monday, and encourages these drivers to “skip the line, go online!”

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Motorists who received the letters say the Registry is sending an unclear message. Patricia Baylor, a retired teacher from Brockton, said the letter she received this month encouraged her to renew online even though her license won’t expire until June. It did not mention the opportunity to get a new, Real ID license. So she renewed, and is now frustrated she’ll have to renew again within a couple of years if she wants a Real ID.

“It came up short in not mentioning there was a new type of license. That should have been mentioned, I think, because it gives people the choice,” Baylor said.

“I had no idea I could have waited and gone to the Registry and gotten the new type of license.”

For months, the state has loudly broadcast the changes coming to the RMV, which will go into effect Monday. The new license requirement was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and, after October 2020, it will be the only valid driver’s license for boarding a US flight or entering a federal facility.

Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said the option could prove popular in Massachusetts, noting other states have seen as high as 90 percent of motorists opt for Real ID.

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Several drivers who independently contacted the Globe last week cited the letter as the reason they renewed their licenses months ahead of schedule when they would have otherwise waited and obtained the Real ID after Monday.

“They’re the one with the bully pulpit,” said Brad Chisholm, a construction worker in Gloucester who renewed his license online after receiving a letter from the RMV in mid-March.

“They could have at least said this is a good opportunity to change your license and get a Real ID.”

Judy Vinson of Norton said she felt “deceived” by the letter after learning about Real ID days after renewing her license online. Vinson, who received the letter in March, said it suggests the Real ID effort is not off to a good start.

“It certainly doesn’t help the Registry’s reputation. They’re always trying to fix it and then they do something like this,” Vinson said. “It’s like they can’t get out of their own way.”

It’s unclear how many people received the letters, or how many of them renewed online. Registry officials said they could not provide figures because the agency’s computer system went offline Thursday night to prepare for the rollout of Real ID on Monday. Nonetheless, officials defended their communications to drivers.

“The Mass RMV has taken steps to communicate with customers who will be impacted by the new federal and state requirements as of March 26,” Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department, said in a statement.

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More than a decade in the making, the Real ID licenses will comply with new federal security standards intended to prevent false identities. Applicants must bring proof of citizenship or lawful residency, among other documents, in person to Registry offices or AAA branches to obtain the license.

Drivers can still elect to get non-Real ID licenses, which are renewable online. But then they must use a passport, passport card, or other federal ID to board a flight after October 2020.

Implementing Real ID marks a major undertaking for the Registry. The project comes just months after the agency ran into technical difficulties when it introduced a new system for vehicle inspections, leaving drivers scrambling to find gas stations or auto shops that could conduct inspections.

State transportation officials said the renewal letter to drivers with licenses expiring between April and August went out as early as February, but the motorists who contacted the Globe said they only received it this month.

Officials also said they sent another letter to people whose licenses are set to expire soon, detailing Real ID and explaining it will be valid for federal identification. Some, but not all, of the drivers who received the letter urging online renewal would have also received the more detailed letter.

Still, a sample of that letter, presented by the RMV at a recent public meeting, had a line in bold type at the top notifying drivers if they are eligible to renew online.

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The drivers who contacted the Globe all said they never received the other letter. They’re miffed that the letter they did receive failed to explain Real ID or why they may want to get one.

Goddard did not say why the letters Vinson, Baylor, and others received did not detail Real ID. Vinson theorized the RMV may have sought to direct people online to manage crowds at RMV offices, or assumed drivers were more familiar with the Real ID implementation.

Meanwhile, the agency said, it won’t be offering any partial refunds or credits to drivers with recent license renewals if they try to obtain a Real ID before October 2020.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.