At most Motor Vehicle Commission agencies, wait times are down significantly and customer service is better. That’s all good.
But there’s one issue — highlighted by Bamboozled in one of its very first columns nearly five years ago — that MVC hasn’t yet improved. Or fixed. Or changed.
And that’s bad.
MVC computers can’t handle certain names on driver’s licenses. That means New Jerseyans with two-word first names (Mary Ann) or last names (Price Mueller), or those who use an apostrophe (D’Egidio) or a hyphen (Smith-Jones), can’t have driver’s licenses that match their other legal documentation, such as passports and birth certificates.
We made the case to MVC in 2009 on behalf of Stephen Dello Russo.
Dello Russo, whose documentation all showed his name was two words with a space in between, was issued a license that said “Stephen D. Russo.”
“I explained I had a fraudulent license in my possession,” he said.
Dello Russo actually looked into it, concerned about having identification that didn’t match, but balked at the $1,000 cost.
He was eventually reissued a license with his two-word name, but without spaces, so his license read “Dellorusso.” When he asked what would happen when he had to renew his license in four years, the MVC rep wasn’t sure.
We were told that even though MVC’s six-point identification system made huge strides against fake licenses, the system simply couldn’t handle spaces, apostrophes or hyphens. It would only allow names with nine letters for the first name, one middle initial and 17 for the last name. MVC called the character system “antiquated,” and said it was working on a new system that would correct those flaws.
But Hao Ling Chau learned firsthand the system hasn’t yet been updated.
Chau, of Cambodian descent, is one of eight siblings. All her brothers and sisters, per Cambodian tradition, have two first names.
“We are all naturalized citizens, and our (INS) certificates all printed the same way, with a space between the two parts of our first names,” she said. “This is recognized with INS as well as the state of Pennsylvania.”
She recently moved to New Jersey, and she wanted to trade in her Pennsylvania driver’s license for a New Jersey one.
She said she visited the Cherry Hill MVC on Nov. 9, and she presented her Pennsylvania license, a bank statement and her passport. She filled out the paperwork and had her photo taken, and was given a license that said “Hao L. Chau.”
“(The clerk) asked, “Is the information correct?’” Chau said. “I told her the ‘L’ which was located in the middle name should not be there. My entire name is Hao Ling.“
The clerk said the system couldn’t handle a space or a hyphen, Chau said, so Chau asked about putting the two words together.
“She then went back and spoke to another lady and returned, insisting that I would have to get my name combined on my documentation in order for them to consider this as a first name,” Chau said.
Nothing she said could convince the clerk, she said, so she took the license and left.
But she was concerned the name not matching her other documentation could be a problem in the future.
“In a post-9/11 world where everyone but NJ MVC seems to care about all legal documents matching names, I began to fret,” she said.
Plus, several years ago, Chau was the victim of identity theft, she said. Hao Chau — her name without the second word of her first name — is common, and the credit reporting agencies linked her record to people with similar names and awful credit. She’s cleaned up her record, but she didn’t want to fight that fight again.
She headed to a passport office in Philadelphia to learn more.
She said a helpful rep explained that for passports, there is guidance about Cambodian first names. The rep gave a copy to Chau.
The document clearly said: “There are no middle names.”
The passport rep suggested Chau try a different MVC agency, so on Nov. 16, she went to Medford.
She said she explained her license was printed in error, and she shared her license and identifying documentation, plus a printout of the doc from the passport office.
In short, the rep said Chau’s license was correct, and she disregarded the printout from the passport office, calling it “not relevant,” Chau said. When Chau argued, the rep told Chau she would have to go to INS to have her documentation changed to make her two first names run together as one word before MVC could accept it, Chau said.
Later, Chau and her husband received an e-mail from MVC that said: “Our database was designed to conform to the standards of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.”
Chau then spoke to two of her sisters, who said they had no trouble renewing in Pennsylvania with their two-word names. A cousin in Florida reported the same about that state’s system.
“So if New Jersey is compliant with ‘standards of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Association …’ then why is it that all other states are acceptable and ‘in sync’ except New Jersey?” Chau said. “Why should I change my name just to meet their requirements and go through wasted time and money and process?”
She considered changing her name, but it would cost at least $600, plus the cost for a new passport, and the cost of her time.
She decided this shouldn’t be her problem, but that of MVC, so she contacted Bamboozled.
We reviewed Chau’s documentation and reached out to MVC.
It confirmed that the MVC computers still can’t accept spaces, hyphens or apostrophes — just as it couldn’t in 2009.
“We’re dealing with a database dating back to the 1980s,” said spokeswoman Elyse Coffey.
She said the system is still being updated to in the future accept spaces, hyphens and apostrophes, and it’s now in the testing phase.
“If the planets all align, we’re hoping that by 2016 this should all be cleared up,” Coffey said.
Coffey arranged for Chau to return to an MVC agency to have her license reissued with her two first names squished together as one word.
She also said by the time Chau would need to renew, the new system should be in place so Chau would have the option to renew with the same spaceless first name, or visit an agency to have a new license with her first name as two words.
Chau did get a new license, this one with her two-word first name as a one word name.
“I still can’t believe that New Jersey MVC is unable to handle my name exactly as my parents gave it to me, though I do understand that they’re trying to fix that in the future,” she said. “I just hope that they improve their employee training… as well as upgrade their systems, so I don’t have to go through this again and other New Jersey citizens like me are processed correctly the first time.”
CLEARING UP LOOSE ENDS
We asked the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), whose members include 69 states, provinces and territories in the U.S. and Canada, to ask what it means to be in compliance with the group’s standards.
AAMVA’s Geoff Slagle said safety is the group’s main purpose. This includes issuing standards for driver’s licenses with the goal of having every member system match, so the records and identities of all drivers also match, significantly reducing the opportunity for fraud or for ne’er-do-well drivers to have multiple licenses from multiple jurisdictions.
The “overwhelming majority” of license issuers, including New Jersey, don’t conform to the group’s standards, he said. Instead, many treat the standard like a recommendation, often deciding which parts of the standard to follow and which to ignore.
“As the standards geek, I tell people, if you want something that’s uniform and secure, here’s the recipe on how to do it,” he said. “If you decide to treat this as a buffet and only do some things, you’re not going to get the full benefits and you’re going to end up having to deal with consequences.”
“Imagine if we didn’t have a standard for the nuts that hold the wheels to your car, and someone says, ‘Oh, that’s just a recommendation,'” he said.
He said New Jersey is not alone in being slow to make changes, noting that motor vehicle departments are often the last to get new technology, even though in this country, driver’s licenses are the preferred form of identification.
We hope that New Jersey’s new system, come 2016, will be ready to go.
We were also curious to see what happened for Dello Russo, whose license was up for renewal earlier this year.
Dello Russo said he renewed by mail, so his new license still has his last name as one word.
“I didn’t know if I was going to have trouble in person,” he said, noting it was trouble-free when his wallet was recently stolen and he went to get a new license. “Whatever was in the system, they just gave me.”
Dello Russo said was doubtful that he’d ever be able to have his legal name, without spaces, on his license.
“I really don’t think they’re going to fix the problem if they didn’t fix it after (nearly) five years,” he said.
We’ll keep an eye on things and let you know when changes are made.