DMVs Improve Images

State DMVs are adopting imaging technology to automate the process of capturing, storing, retrieving and producing driver's licenses.

by / August 31, 1996
For millions of Americans, the days of unflattering driver's license photographs have mercifully come to an end. Thanks to digital imaging, photos can be taken, viewed and, if necessary, retaken before the image is affixed to the actual license. For state governments, however, digital imaging means much more than improving the quality of photos that appear on licenses. The technology has significantly increased the security of license issuance, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to issue unauthorized duplicate licenses.

Motor vehicle departments have also used imaging to capture signatures and fingerprints as well as all the documentation related to licenses, such as applications, titles and registrations. As a result, DMVs can create a single electronic file folder that contains data, documents and images for each licensed driver in the state. By converting pertinent driver information into an electronic format, states can deliver efficiencies that affect everything from customer service and insurance costs to law enforcement and public safety.

Digital imaging has been commercially available since the mid-1980s, but only in recent years has the cost of the technology come down enough to make it justifiable for states to convert their traditional, chemical-based photo licensing operations. Today, 37 states use digital imaging for licenses or have issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to implement the technology within the next 18 months. Most of them have instant issuance systems, which create a permanent license while the driver is at the office. Centralized systems provide drivers with a temporary license on the day of their visit and then follow up by sending the permanent license in the mail several days later.

Vic Andelin, director of technology for NBS Imaging Systems Inc., pointed out that while centralized systems may appear inconvenient because of the extra step involving the temporary license, they are faster, with less time spent producing the license while the driver waits. "You're talking 30 seconds vs. three minutes," he said. "That time can add up when your DMV has to handle large volumes of customers."

According to David Snodgrass, an identification expert with Q&A Consulting, central licensing systems are considered more secure, because the DMV has greater control over the production of the licenses at one central site.

As for cost, it all depends on volume and the number of sites a DMV maintains. Nearly all states lease their license issuance systems on a transaction basis, paying vendors a fee for each license the system produces. In return, the vendor provides all the equipment and assumes responsibility for implementation, training, maintenance and supplies. At first glance, instant systems may appear to cost more because they need printers at every site (some states have more than 100), while central systems require just one. But the hardware for a central system is bigger (and more expensive) than what's found at instant sites around a state.

As for technology, digital licensing has followed the trends in document imaging. Vendors have turned away from proprietary technology toward open, client/server systems that cost less and do more. North Dakota, for example, recently signed a seven-year contract with Unisys Corp. to provide instant license issuance for the state's 400,000 drivers. Unisys uses client/server technology to produce digital licenses at 26 permanent sites throughout the state. Each site has a video camera, video printer, handheld scanner, imaging workstation and a license printer. The handheld scanner is used to digitally capture the driver's signature. The computers are connected via an information network to a single database located in Bismarck, the state capital. The database stores demographic information about North Dakota's drivers, while a separate server stores photos and fingerprints. The state originally wanted to keep all data on the mainframe, but the costs would have been prohibitive. Using the latest imaging technology has enabled North Dakota to provide a mobile licensing service for communities located too far away from an online site. Roving examiners can run a licensing system from a standard-sized van. The only difference is that drivers receive a temporary license first.

According to Snodgrass, compression technology keeps shrinking the digital size of license photos, from approximately 12K a few years ago to as little as 8K today. Digital storage has also improved. Some states put their photos (and digitized signatures and fingerprints) on magnetic hard drives, but most use optical storage. California stores images on massive 14-inch optical discs, each of which can hold up to 25 gigabytes of data. Retrieving those images has become important as states try to thwart the use of unauthorized driver's licenses.

Strict drinking laws have led to problems with teenagers attempting to trick DMVs into issuing duplicate licenses under the name of an older friend or acquaintance. Under the old photographic system, DMV staff had no way of confirming a person's identity. But with digital technology, instant identification of a person is possible because staff can retrieve the driver's image in seconds. South Dakota has seen its problem with unauthorized licenses disappear since converting to a digital licensing system.

DMV's also have unleashed imaging on their documents, converting paper applications, titles, registrations, violations and even remittance checks into digitized images for fast retrieval and more efficient document management. The technology, according to Michael J. Tenalio, manager of public-sector marketing for Eastman Kodak, has benefited drivers by reducing the time they must wait, whether it's to acquire a vehicle title or to find out the status of a violation or suspended license. DMV staff also benefit because they can manage all aspects of license information from their desktops without the hassles and errors brought on by paper files. These document images also provide auto insurance agencies with more accurate information in a timely manner.

Eventually, the documents, photos and fingerprints will be accessible by law enforcement agencies at police stations or in their vehicles. The same data could also be used by other state agencies for tracking parents enrolled in child support programs.

While today's digitized driver's license still hasn't become the national identity card some have predicted, within some state's borders, it is turning into a universal identification card.