Two years ago, as part of a drive to improve customer service, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles thought it had hit upon a better way to save rural customers long drives to DMV offices.
Their solution? Nine specially outfitted Chevrolet Suburbans that would travel to remote parts of the state where residents normally need to drive 30 minutes or more to the closest DMV office. DMV officials said these SUV-based mobile offices, which cost a total of $2.5 million to buy and equip, would serve more than 20,000 people in their first year of operation.
But through September of this year, the mobile units had reached just 5,303 customers, including nearly 400 state prisoners, putting the program on a pace to fall far short of its goal.
Statewide, the mobile offices see fewer than 14 people per day on average, but that number varies widely among the 42 places they visit. At 17 stops, the SUV offices averaged less than 10 customers a day; at nine stops, mostly in small Eastern North Carolina towns such as Trenton, Swan Quarter and Snow Hill, they’ve served five or fewer people a day.
“When you get to less than five a day, that’s not optimal utilization,” said Torre Jessup, the DMV commissioner. “We’ve got to figure that out.”
Each Chevrolet Suburban contains two coffin-shaped boxes that rest on ambulance gurneys and fold out into a desk with all the equipment someone would need to issue or renew a driver’s license. These workstations are unloaded and wheeled inside a building, such as a town hall, fire station or senior center.
Jessup says before DMV can make better use of its SUV offices, it first must determine how many people one can expect to serve in a day. Under the right conditions, a workstation at a DMV office can serve 50 customers in an 8-hour day, Jessup said. With travel and set-up time and breaks for the two- or three-person staff, a mobile office wouldn’t be expected to serve that many.
But if the optimal number were half – say 25 customers per mobile desk or 50 total – the SUV offices still aren’t coming close. The most popular stop this year has been in the Polk County town of Columbus, west of Charlotte, which has served about 32 customers per day on average.
The DMV bought the SUVs and workstations to replace five recreational vehicles that had served as mobile offices. The RVs were 15 years old and getting hard to keep on the road; the one that visited towns in Northeastern North Carolina was out of commission for several months in 2013.
Replacing the RVs would have cost $4 million, DMV officials said at the time. Instead, the administration of then-Gov. Pat McCrory came up with the mobile units, which it introduced at the State Fair in 2015.
“These smaller and more efficient mobile offices allow us to bring the DMV directly to remote communities, helping connect all North Carolinians to the services they need,” McCrory said.
At that time, the DMV had plans to increase the number of places the SUVs visit from 25 to 70, allowing it to serve more than 36,000 customers a year. Speaking to the Board of Transportation last month, Jessup said he wants to make sure there’s a demand for the units before expanding the program beyond the 42 places it will visit this year.
“I want to reach every part of the state,” Jessup said. “But at the same time, we pay people to occupy these mobile units, and it’s not always cost effective.”
Busy in Wake Forest
Each of the mobile units weighs about 500 pounds and includes everything an examiner needs to issue a driver’s license, including a vision tester, a scanner and printer, a touch screen for the written exam, a camera and a blue backdrop for license photos. It takes about 15 minutes to set up, said Brenda Anding, a license examiner who works with one of the SUV offices.
“Customers are really shocked at what we can do,” Anding said during a recent visit to the Renaissance Centre in Wake Forest. “We do pretty much everything that a DMV office can do.”
Except, in the case of the Wake Forest office, offer road tests. License examiners will take drivers out on the road at many mobile DMV offices, but that was discontinued in Wake Forest because the office is too busy, Anding said.
Wake Forest is the second busiest location for the mobile units, after Columbus. In 16 visits to the town through September, the mobile office served an average of nearly 23 customers a day.
There used to be a DMV office on U.S. 1, south of town, but it closed years ago when the office on Spring Forest Road in Raleigh opened. Now area residents must drive to offices in Raleigh or Louisburg or wait for the mobile office to come to the Renaissance Centre the first and third Mondays of each month.
About a dozen customers were waiting when the mobile office opened at 9 a.m. on a recent Monday. Coralee Rogers of Wake Forest brought two daughters – Shannon, 15, to get her learner’s permit, and Emily, 17, to get her full license. If not for this office, Rogers said, they’d probably drive to Louisburg, which is a half hour each way, on top of an unpredictable wait.
“We just figured this would be closer, more convenient,” she said. “Raleigh we know is just crazy busy. Louisburg is just hit or miss.”
Slow days in Warrenton
About 42 miles up the road from Wake Forest is the least used mobile stop, in the town of Warrenton in Warren County. In nine visits to the N.C. National Guard Armory through September, the mobile office has averaged just 2.45 customers a day.
Jessup says the DMV might have to stop visiting places like Warrenton, but that there may be other ways to make stops like this more cost effective, including better marketing.
Indeed, it’s not clear how people are supposed to know the DMV is coming to Warrenton. There’s nothing about it on the town or county websites, and no flyers or posters in the town hall, said Meredith Valentine, the interim town administrator.
“I have heard that one comes here,” Valentine said. “That’s all that I’ve heard, honestly.”
To make matters worse, the DMV website that lists the locations and schedules for each mobile office gave the wrong address for the National Guard Armory in Warrenton, sending people to the wrong side of town. DMV fixed the error after The News & Observer brought it to the agency’s attention.
Jessup says one way DMV can make better use of its mobile offices will be in its drive to get people to obtain a REAL ID, a form of driver’s license that meets new federal standards for identification. The SUVs could visit university campuses, businesses and other institutions that get commitments from 50 people who want to get the new IDs.
Jessup also says SAS Institute, the Cary-based analytics company, has offered to help DMV maximize its use of the mobile offices as part of the broader REAL ID campaign.
“We’re going to work closely with them to try to figure out how we can optimize the use of these resources,” he said.
Driver’s license office vs. a license plate agency
The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles operates 113 driver’s license offices across the state, in addition to the mobile units. This is where you go for the licenses and permits you need to drive in the state.
The license plate agencies are where you go for the license plates and registration documents that your vehicle needs to be on the road. There are 123 of them across the state, all run by contractors except for the one on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh.