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