RICHMOND, Va. -- Todd Cimino-Johnson of Leesburg spent much of his winter waiting for a response from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
After purchasing a new car in February, Cimino-Johnson over-nighted his registration forms in the mail after the earliest in-person appointments were booked up.
In the Commonwealth, registering a new vehicle can only be completed in-person or by mailing in the forms.
“There are just not any appointments available for a couple of months,” Cimino-Johnson said. “I’ll just send it in and overnight it because on their website they do have overnight, so this will speed things up a little.”
After waiting for a month without a response, he called DMV Customer Service.
“After about eight times calling and I finally got through to someone. It took 20 minutes for them to come back on the line to tell me I was in the queue, but she couldn’t tell me when it was going to be processed,” Cimino-Johnson recalled.
Since the start of 2021, dozens of people have reached out to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers about their struggles signing up for a DMV appointment or reaching someone on the phone.
Problem Solver Brendan King took those concerns to the top of the DMV and Commissioner Rick Holcomb.
Holcomb is the longest-serving DMV Commissioner in the history of Virginia. He first joined the state agency in 1994 when he was appointed by then-Governor George Allen.
He was reappointed by then-Governor James Gilmore in 1998. He later returned to the department after working in the private sector.
Commissioner Holcomb admitted, for some, the wait for an in-person appointment is long.
“You’d come into the DMV, get your ticket, and sometimes wait hours, particularly in the urban areas to get called. Now that wait is to get an appointment,” he explained.
Virginia DMV emailed CBS 6 several pictures showing what the average DMV lobby looked like pre-lockdown and then during the pandemic.
Hundreds of customers used to pack the lobbies and stand shoulder to shoulder waiting for their ticket to be called.
In 2021, employees are forced to space customers at least six feet apart to comply with the CDC's COVID-safety guidelines.
Only a handful of customers are allowed inside the centers while DMV employees fulfill transactions.
“I apologize that people might need to wait a little bit longer to get an appointment, but I will not apologize for the wonderful experience they will have once they get in the DMV,” Holcomb explained.
The DMV did shut down in-person transactions for two months in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. During that time, customers completed 1.7 million transactions through the DMV website.
North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky are among a growing number of states that now allow DMV customers to walk-in for service.
DMV centers in Virginia, as well as Washington D.C. and Maryland, remain appointment only.
“We had to revolutionize how we effectively serve our customers in a safe manner and that’s what we accomplished,” Holcomb stated. “I look forward to when the Governor announces the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror and we can open more windows.”
The DMV Shutdown
On March 17, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced the DMV's 75 locations would be closed due to the coronavirus.
The locations re-opened in phases until mid-August.
Commissioner Holcomb argued since then that 15 percent or 500,000 customers haven’t shown up for their appointments.
“I wish once people make an appointment they show up, and if they can’t make it, they cancel it,” he stated.
The Problem Solvers found anyone can book an appointment and as often they want -- if they can find an available time slot.
All that is required is a name, email address, and phone number to secure an appointment. There is no penalty for not showing up to an appointment.
“Are you aware that customers are able to make multiple appointments and that’s why they aren’t showing up?” CBS 6’s Brendan King asked Holcomb during a Zoom interview.
“Even though we don’t have the most sophisticated appointment system, we are upgrading it and we will have a lot more tools in the next few weeks,” Holcomb responded. “We do manually go through and if we see the same name more than once we cancel the appointments for them.”
Holcomb said the DMV would require legislative authority to penalize a customer for not showing up.
Fixing the Isssue
Gov. Ralph Northam was asked about the persistent DMV issues following an economic announcement in Scott's Addition on Tuesday.
"We meet regularly. I look at the data everyday. We made some modifications today with some of our measures," Northam said. "We will make some more. I’ll make that announcement in a couple of days that will become effective May 15 and then the June 15."
Northam didn't go into specifics, but said he will make the announcement on Tuesday. As more adults are vaccinated against the coronavirus, Northam anticipated opportunities to relax more restrictions.
"Our state agencies have been working around the clock," he stated. "I think people will be very excited we are moving in a good direction in Virginia."
The DMV continued to add additional services available to be completed online and will expand access for more in-person appointments, he said.
DMV locations that offer Saturday services will extend their hours to a full workday during the second Saturday in May, June, and July.
Holcomb said they are also adding appointment opportunities daily for road skills testing due to daylight saving time, which would add an additional 2,660-time slots.
In the Fall, the DMV announced customers with soon-to-expire licenses could apply online for a two-year credential renewal option rather than requiring an in-person appointment.
“DMV is also constantly looking for ways to add more appointments to the calendar to assist those customers who need in-person service,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
Since reopening customer service centers last year, the DMV has served 4.4 million in-person customers, which equates to 12,000 people a day.
DMV employees have also cleared a backlog of mailed-in transactions and should process car titles within two to three weeks, Holcomb said.
“We saw a 100-percent jump in people mailing in, we were not staffed, and we have now doubled the staff there,” he explained. “I do apologize to the man who had to wait.”
By the end of the week, DMV customers who mailed in registration forms can check the status of their title work online.
Holcomb also encouraged customers to seek help through DMV’s social media channels.
On the CBS 6 Facebook page, one woman wrote, “I finally went to the DMV Facebook page and direct messaged them. They responded within 24 hours and got me an appointment. I was able to renew my driver's license and get the Real ID at the same time.”
Another viewer commented, “I have tried calling about 25 times. Every time I have called the system has said that all operators are busy, and they can't take my call. It then hangs up on you. No options to just sit and wait on hold.”
The Biggest Frustration
Cimino-Johnson said the biggest frustration of his DMV experience was not being able to speak with someone on the phone or through email.
“I will not disagree that we are not answering the phone when we need to. Normally we would see about 25,000 calls a day and during the pandemic, at some point, we were seeing 100,000,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb argued that many of the answers to customer’s questions can be found online and do not require a phone call.
The DMV also reinstated its email system after taking it offline.
But access to broadband internet is a tool that disproportionally impacts families across the area. Traveling to a DMV location that is miles away or in another jurisdiction isn’t feasible for those without access to a vehicle.
Cimino-Johnson doesn’t regret buying the new car. He received his car tags within two months, but everyone else has to continue waiting.
“If I had known it was such a problem, well I don’t know what I would’ve done differently,” he said.
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