Why can’t N.J. reopen its motor vehicle agencies like other states already have?

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Drivers who bought vehicles from another person have gotten an unwelcome surprise during the last two months – they can’t get the license plates and registration they need to drive them, due to the coronavirusclosing motor vehicle agencies.

Drivers who’ve bought a vehicle from a private owner found out that registering their new ride requires an in-person transaction at motor vehicle agencies. But state Motor Vehicle Commission agencies were closed on March 16 to reduce exposure to COVID-19.

A Budd Lake woman said she is unable to use the truck she bought in March and now fears she might lose her job because of it. Drivers who buy vehicles from dealers can get a temporary tag, an option not open to buyers from private individuals.

Lined up behind them are a legion of young drivers to be, waiting to get learner’s permits or take tests for that right-of-passage to get a first driver’s license. That also requires multiple trips to the MVC.

“Schedule appointments, give them a number and have them wait in their car for a text, stand in line 6-feet apart, have plexiglass in front of their window to pass information,” said Mary Beth Lee of Hamilton, who’s daughter who needs her license for a summer job. “As for the road test, both driver and instructor wear a mask and leave windows in car open.”

But in 22 other states, DMVs are allowing drivers back into agencies on a limited basis – usually by appointment and for business that can’t do on-line.

Virginia is the latest state to open 14 DMV agencies Monday that were retrofitted to minimize contact between customers and workers. Drivers who were aware of it asked why can’t New Jersey do something similar.

“We expect to have all of our (75) offices open by the end of July or the beginning of August,” said Jessica Cowardin, a Virginia DMV spokeswoman.

Here’s how they did it: Clear plastic barriers were installed at windows to separate DMV clerks and customers. In addition, every other clerk’s window is closed, so they’re six feet apart, she said.

More changes:

\- Waiting areas have fewer chairs that are six feet apart.

\- Customers have to wait in their cars until 10 minutes before their appointment and must wear a mask.

\- Greeters remind customers to practice social distancing.

“As of this (Wednesday) morning, we have booked nearly 70,000 appointments statewide,” she said. “We have assisted approximately 4,000 customers with approximately 8,000 transactions in the first two days at the customer service centers that reopened on Monday.”

Additional offices will reopen once clear plastic partitions have been installed on front counters, she said.

Roughly 22 states have some form of limited access to motor vehicle agencies for essential transactions by appointment according to the American Association of Motor Vehicles Administrators. Two other states allow drivers to process vehicle titles and registrations by mail or drop-off.

North Dakota is working on a restart plan using appointments for priority on-site services only. Ohio is planning to reopen DMV facilities on May 26.

“We’re definitely working hard on that,” said William Connolly, an MVC spokesman, about investigating alternatives for transactions that can’t be done online.

But processes that work in other states may not work here because of the state’s population density and the immensity of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.

MVC Chief Administrator Sue Fulton said she is familiar with what DMV’s in other states have done as a board member of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

“Every jurisdiction has different statutes, different situations, different considerations,” she said. “No other U.S. state is as densely populated as New Jersey, no other state serves as many Motor Vehicle customers per location as New Jersey, and few if any states have sustained the COVID-19 impact that New Jersey has.”

How big is the workload? In fiscal year 2020, MVC officials forecast agencies would process and issue 14.29 million documents, of those 6.67 million were driver’s licenses, 2.98 million were vehicle titles and 2. 55 million were vehicle registrations.

The MVC issued 506,459 learners permits, according to MVC statistics from the state Office of Legislative Services. Virginia has 6.16 million drivers, New Jersey has 6.46 million licensed drivers.

“We have considered many possible options, and we will make the right decisions for the state of New Jersey, "Fulton said. "Our first priority is the health and safety of our customers and our employees, and we are working hard to develop and implement reopening plans that best fit our state and its residents.”

But that answer wasn’t satisfactory for frustrated parents.

“Schedule appointments, give them a number and have them wait in their car for a text, stand in line six feet apart, have plexiglass in front of their window to pass information,” said Mary Beth Lee of Hamilton, whose daughter needs her license for a summer job. “As for the road test, both driver and instructor wear a mask and leave windows in car open.”

Lee said the DMV should be considered an essential service.

“There are other creative solutions that could be considered. Driving schools are licensed by the state and could easily be deputized on a temporary or permanent basis to conduct the road tests,” she said. To hear that 10 weeks have gone by, and they have not have come up with a solution to open is unacceptable. People need drivers licenses and the use of their car.”

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Larry Higgsmay be reached atlhiggs@njadvancemedia.com.