Traffic jam at the DMV

A person exits the Ontario Field Office of Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicles Services on Tuesday. Services are provided by appointment only, as the department is struggling to provide enough appointments for those services.

Do you need to take a driver’s test? Have you just bought a new car and need to get it registered in the state of Oregon? If so, you need an appointment.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, Oregon Driver & Motor Vehicle Services has moved to an appointment-only system of serving customers through its field offices. For some services you can show up unannounced and put your name on a waiting list, but that’s about it.

As far as getting an appointment by phone or online goes, assuming you can get one at Ontario, you may find yourself booking one two months out or longer. If you don’t have time to wait, you can choose appointments at offices in Baker City or La Grande, among others.

But why is it this difficult to get an appointment at the DMV? To find out, the Argus reached out to the department’s public affairs officer David House to learn more. He said while most offices were closed last spring, six remained open to provide essential services to commercial drivers.

“We shifted field office employees to processing more mail transactions than ever before and continued training to keep our deployment of the new driver licensing system on track,” wrote House in an email Tuesday. “Because many services, especially around license and ID issuance and testing, must be done in person, a backlog of customers accumulated from late March onward. We modified our offices and procedures (transparent shields at counters, spaced out waiting areas, enhanced sanitation for common surfaces) and created a simple appointment system starting in June.”

Before the pandemic, the department had 50,000 visits per week to its field offices. Since reopening on July 6, offices now see just 34,000 visits per week.

“But with more mail transactions and many more online services, we think we’re actually closing that gap. We just can’t measure it exactly or easily compare new system figures/processes with the old system,” said House.

He said that the issue is not unique to Ontario, but rather is a statewide problem.

“The demand for appointments has been high from the start in June, and as we add blocks of slots about two months ahead, they fill up fast — all over Oregon. If anything, it’s harder to get an appointment west of the Cascades and in the larger cities than it is east of the Cascades.”

However, because the appointment system has proven popular among motorists, House said the department plans to keep it in place after the pandemic is over. In the meantime, he said the state has a moratorium in place on citations being issued to drivers with expired tags to protect those who are trying to get their vehicles registered or renewed.

“We’ll continue adding services online to DMV2U.Oregon.gov as we build them. And we might get more help from House Bill 2137 if it passes the current Legislature — it extends the law enforcement moratorium through Jan. 2, 2022, and does some other things that will help reduce the need to visit DMV offices in person.”

However, he recommends keeping the email you receive when you book an appointment at the field offices in case you need to venture over state lines, as the moratorium is valid in Oregon only.

“At this time, in a traffic stop, it’s always up to an officer’s discretion about whether to write a ticket. The best advice is to carry documentation that you have and explain that you have not been able to get your tags, plates or trip permit, or renew a license because you’re waiting on DMV. Officers can check your driving privileges electronically to verify that your card is expired and that you are not suspended.”

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