The Registry of Motor Vehicles has for months scrambled to correct its failure to track alerts from other states about law-breaking drivers, refocusing attention on a long-ignored responsibility that Governor Charlie Baker this week called “a fail.”
“And I’m glad we fixed it,” he said.
But an administration-commissioned review also highlighted another reality: The Registry is still facing a lengthy list of other unresolved problems, including backlogs of criminal data and violations by drivers who have ignition interlock devices, and revelations that paper warnings haven’t been processed for a decade. One of the tasks could take months — and some say years — to complete.
The Registry’s years-long pattern of ignoring out-of-state notifications has dominated public discourse after officials admitted they should have stripped the license of a West Springfield trucker before he allegedly crashed into and killed seven motorcyclists on a New Hampshire highway in June.
It’s meant the roughly half-dozen “additional risks” identified by accounting firm Grant Thornton in its 106-report last week have garnered less public attention, even if they are on the radar of Registry officials.
Acting Registrar Jamey Tesler has said his staff is “addressing them all,” and in at least one case, he disputed the timeline it could take to catch up.
“Not all of them will result in suspensions,” Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said of the backlogs Tuesday. “But making sure that we catch up on all of the safety critical work will make all of us safer.”
Taken together, however, they show an agency not only battered by a years, if not decades, of neglect but one still juggling a variety of issues whose magnitude churned to the surface only this summer.
“The flaw that led to a whole array of public safety operational problems goes back to management choices that the [Baker] administration made early on,” said William M. Straus, cochair of the Legislature’s transportation committee, referencing the report’s finding that Registry officials were consumed with improving the customer service side of the agency — an effort they dubbed the “War on Wait Times” — while neglecting the back-office work intended to keep unsafe drivers off the road.
“The fact that bad things predate you doesn’t mean they get to stay in existence,” he said.
Baker has defended the administration’s approach, saying that cutting the lines at Registry service centers was “important to the public” and that many safety issues, including the mishandling of out-of-state alerts, had long predated his administration.
His office said Tuesday he also was not aware of the various other backups and brimming queues until after the New Hampshire crash.
“The work that’s being done now to clean up the back of the house will dramatically improve the performance,” Baker told reporters this week.
That includes tackling a backlog of criminal information the Registry has to add to drivers’ records, which, if not done in a timely manner, could mean licenses aren’t suspended when they’re supposed to be, according to the report.
By the end of September, there were still 13,000 “work items” the Registry needed to process, and one Registry employee told Grant Thornton’s team that it could take “as long as two years” to fully address them.
Tesler disputed that, saying officials had already sliced that list down from 22,000 and that catching up will take months, not years.
The Registry also allowed hundreds of violations by drivers who have ignition interlock devices to pile up. The cellphone-sized equipment, which tests a driver’s blood-alcohol level before he or she starts the car, is required for Massachusetts drivers using a so-called hardship license after two or more drunken driving convictions.
There remain about 900 unprocessed violations, Registry officials said Tuesday, and Tesler said staffers are working with overtime to go through about 350 per week. None, he said, date back more than 30 days.
The various violations could be duplicates in the queue or tasks that simply weren’t closed by staff in the system, according to the Registry. But they could also include drivers who will need to go before a hearing to “answer for the activity and violations,” according to the agency.
“We recognize and have prioritized the urgency with which we address . . . the queue,” Tesler said.
Stretching back further is an unidentified number of unprocessed paper warnings that police departments have doled out at traffic stops. The Registry’s Merit Rating Board — a once-obscure unit at the center of its failures to track out-of-state alerts — hasn’t processed the paper warnings for roughly 10 years, though officials kept up with ones submitted electronically, the report found.
While a warning alone won’t prompt a suspension, the lapse could have a trickle-down effect. An officer or trooper could weigh how often a driver has received past warnings when deciding whether to issue a fine during a traffic stop, meaning drivers could be “treated differently depending on whether their prior warning history was provided to the MRB in paper or electronic form,” according to the report.
Tesler said the Registry was aware of the problem, but he did not say whether the agency would begin processing the paper forms. “This emphasizes for us the need to shift more police departments in Massachusetts onto the e-Citations system,” he said.
Shaun Kildare, director of research for the consumer group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the various backlogs range in seriousness, but all contribute to a single underlying problem.
“[Taking] all of these together, there are going to be drivers still out on the road who obviously shouldn’t be, or should be getting much more attention,” he said.
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