Fifty Shades of Driving License

By Andrej Mrevlje |

The photo above shows my defunct New York car plates. My car did not die; I haven’t exchanged it; I did not have a car accident. I am very much alive, I’ve just moved from New York to Washington D.C. Happily and eagerly, I was hoping for a new adventure.

During the first period of our living in D.C., we spent a lot of time commuting between the two cities. It seemed normal not to relinquish too much of our New York identity because we spent our working days there, driving the 230 miles home almost every weekend. In D.C., we parked our car in the garage of my wife’s office, moving around the city by the perfectly functional local bike share most of the time. Biking in D.C. is pleasant; the city offers well-protected bike lanes, broad streets and sidewalks, less traffic and mild winters. The main reason, however, to keep the car in the garage was not to keep it safe and clean, but because we–New Yorkers–could not justify a street parking permit while only renting a small pied-a-terre in DC, our primary residence still in New York.

As a matter of fact, changing residence to Washington or, I presume, anywhere else in the U.S., is a rather familiar, in particular, story. One does not need to go to an office and declare that he is moving his address from location A to location B. Proof of his American residence comes in the form of a photo ID, usually a driver’s license. When he has to change his driving license? Again, he will not go to a registry office, but instead to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), with a proof of address (utility bill, lease contract), and a bank statement on hand. One or two of each is enough. We had, of course, done none of this, and were enjoying our nomadic life, until one Sunday morning on a weekend we decided to stay in D.C. and left the car parked on the street. There was no parking limit during the weekend.

That morning, I found a bright pink notice stuck between the windshield and its wiper. Inviting, albeit ominous. Indeed, it was a warning from the local traffic police, telling us that non-residents are not permitted to park overnight on the street. If we continued to do so, we’d be liable to receive some kind of ticket. The only loophole was if we were students or government officials. Since we are neither, we, the DMV site explained, could ask permission to be exempt from tickets for overnight street parking for non-residents. It was not a permit nor a sticker, but a registration of our “foreign” New York car plates with the local policing system, which would free us from our transgression. But not forever; for one year only. Then, I was told at the DMV the following day,  we would no longer be permitted to park our non-DC car, with its non-DC plates, on the streets of the capital at night. I thought the regulation must be some exaggerated security measure that came with the package after the Patriot Act was enacted post-9/11. It made me feel like I was under constant surveillance since this bizarre measure was focused on the cars that were not registered with the local authorities. And only overnight.

Once I registered our car plates with the local police, we were safe and happy. That is, until September last year, when we rented a new house, got a new address and informed the U.S. mail to forward our mail to our new address in Washington, which changed our life completely. The pressure to become a Washingtonian mounted with every new day. First, the car insurance. If this is where you are spending most of your time, you should move the insurance there, the car insurance company advised. It would be easier to cover the damage in case of an accident, I was told. Then the tax bureau; since we started to pay taxes in Washington, we needed to put down the new address. As a consequence, we needed to change the billing addresses of our credit cards. Finally, we had 30 days to register our car in D.C. and get new plates. What I attempted to avoid for a year since the appearance of that pink warning paper, and subsequent registration, now became unavoidable. We were now residents, and better act accordingly.

Everything up to this point was logical, except the first act. Namely, I soon learned that in order to change the car registration–the plates–I first needed to change my driving license. I will never understand this. A couple of years ago, when my journalist visa expired and I no longer intended to extend it, I learned that I was no longer allowed to drive with my foreign driving license, which had my New York address on it. Frustrated, irritated and annoyed, I hoped that Europeans would ban Americans with driving licenses from driving around Europe. But there was nothing I could do.

After driving cars all around the world, I had to sit and listen to the lectures for beginners, pass the written test then the driving test (they failed me once). When I finally got the American driving license, with the Green Card already in my pocket (conditio sine qua non to be allowed to do the driving test), I thought the torture was over. Wrong. Now in Washington D.C., yes, the capital of the U.S., I needed to change the driving license again. Is there no comprehensive, transferable federal law that sets and maintains the standards for driving a car on the roads and streets of America? Even in England, where they drive on a side of the road different from most other countries, they do not ask for this kind of nonsense. Why is it not enough to register the change of address, like in any other godly country? Despite the fact that the DMV already had my address, I collected more proof of my Washington residence. Luckily, I did not have to sit for more driving lessons and tests. It took some time, but on December 13, I got the rather nicely designed D.C. driving license. I wondered if the rest of the states in the country would’ve made me do this legwork.

Having a D.C. driving license did not make me a Washingtonian. My bordeaux red Honda still had those warm yellow New York plates, the reason locals often honked behind me. Those were the moments that made me realize that a cosmopolitan local population also has local pride in their blood.

Armed with the documents listed online, after hours on the phone with the 311 service in order to understand the nature of said documents, I finally got in the car and drove to the Georgetown branch of the DMV. I was almost happy when I went through the pile of papers and nothing seemed to be missing. I wanted to move on, but I could not. Our leased car’s contract was signed by my wife, so she needed to come in person, they told me. It was not enough that my and her name appeared together on the documents and addresses; the officials would not budge a millimeter, not even for the marriage certificate.

So when we both came together, the documents were almost ready when my wife came to me pale and scared. “I must have a brain tumor,” she told me in a panic. She’d done the letter-reading eye test on the standard machines “I did not see one-third of the letters I was supposed to be able to read. Nothing, blank!” She was almost in tears as we drove home.  I tried to convince her that she has no symptoms of vision problems, let alone of a brain tumor. She is the trained doctor, and I tried to remind her of this with the little medical facts I knew. Her eyesight is ten times better than mine. She then went silent. After few minutes of googling she returned, saying that there were other people who had the same experience with those gadgets at DMV.

She found an eye doctor and made an urgent appointment for the next day. She was at the doctor’s office for four hours. Her vision is perfect and she had a certificate that two days later she presented to the same people at DMV. They gave her the driving license, acknowledging the doctor’s vision exam and recommendation. At the bottom of her driving license, though, they put in writing that she must drive with glasses. What kind of glasses, if the doctor would not prescribe them because her vision is perfect? I guess she will have to buy fake glasses and put them on in the car. The DMV stubbornly swore the machines were in perfect condition.

The above experience reminds me of the celestial bureaucracy from the times of the Chinese empire. It was ceremonial, ritual, but dysfunctional. At first sight, the American administration seems similar. That is, dysfunctional; ritual and ceremonial it is not. After a while, upon collecting more bureaucratic experiences in my new city, I realized that it is not dysfunction either. You came to understand it, once you received the D.C. plates. They read Taxation without representation.

In other words, because the District of Columbia pays taxes to the government but has no representatives in the Congress, it does not get money from the federal coffers. So we pay them, in driver’s licenses.

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