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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Of license renewals, orphan years and algorithms

When your driver’s license is about to expire, the state sends you a reminder and sometimes an opportunity to renew it from the comfort of your own home over the Internet.

This is a big change from past years, when every few years a motorist would have to go to a Department of Licensing outpost, and wait to take an eye test on one of those funky machines where one must press one’s forehead into a saddle then stare down what seems to be a long dark corridor at tiny letters, then have a new bad photo taken to replace the old bad photo on the expiring card. Many years ago, the motorist even had to remember when the time was up without prompting from the state, which resulted in some embarrassing moments upon presenting a license at the rental car office or airline ticket counter, or to the cop who had initially stopped one for a friendly reminder that a tail light was out.

Last year, the Legislature came up with the cost-saving idea of having drivers to renew every six years, instead of five as the statute then required. This change, however, created a problem for the year 2019, when all the folks from 2014 would not be renewing because they had been re-upped for six years instead of five and many Department of Licensing offices would have far less demand for their services.

The new law was about to create what the agency refers to as “an orphan year,” which would recur in 2024, 2029, and into the future until everyone is getting around in driverless cars.

This would be a particularly troubling development for the comedic icon of waiting in a sterile room with a “Your Number Is” ticket that is separated from the “Now Serving” sign by more than 100 digits while sitting next to someone who has waited so long a spider web had formed around that person’s bleached bones.

The department decided to be a good parent to all of its years with a formula that last year said 80 percent of renewals will be for six years, and 20 percent for five. This year, 80 percent are for six, and 20 percent are for four. The system is expected to continue until at least 2017, when the turnaround might be so short as to annoy the crap out of the unlucky 20 percent.

The department gives that 20 percent a price break, because a renewer pays $9 per year for the life of the license. Still, it must decide who draws the short straw. 

Alert reader Noel Carroll – who has the most Christmasy name encountered in quite some time – wondered about this in an e-mail. She wrote that she has a perfect driving record with no tickets or accidents as she approaches her 60th birthday, but can only renew for four years, while a much younger acquaintance who has both accidents and tickets gets to renew for six. 

“This smacks of a civil rights violation to me,” wrote Carroll.“Why should I, or anyone else with a good driving record, be restricted when others are not?”

Carroll could not find a good explanation for this on the department’s website, and doubted her selection was random. David Bennett, a spokesman for the department, insisted it was, although not with a system that prints every fifth renewal notice with the lower number of years, which would be truly random.

Instead, the selection is based on a computer program using that favorite of computer geeks, an algorithm. For the rest of us who struggled through calculus and quickly forgot everything as soon as the final exam was over, an algorithm is basically a formula to do something by taking different variables into account.

A driver’s accident and ticket history isn’t part of the algorithm because the Department of Licensing does not keep that data – although Carroll suggests that  maybe it should be. It doesn’t use age or gender or other physical data on the license – all blue-eyed blondes or everyone over 6-foot-3 aren’t being singled out for shorter licenses. Bennett was hard pressed on short notice to come up with details of what is part of the algorithm because he would have to get it from the computer folks, then translate into normal person talk. There may be some geographic considerations because certain regions have far more drivers than others, he said.

In any case, selecting out bad drivers for shorter licenses isn’t really possible because renewing licensees don’t take the written or the road test when it’s time to re-up. They only have to show up in person at a licensing office every other renewal. That means a spry 90-year-old goes into the office this year on the six-year plan won’t be back in the waiting room until 2027, when he or she is 102.



Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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