Texas Issues Digital Licenses

In an effort to better serve the public and create a forge-proof driver's license, Texas turned to an imaging solution.

by / July 31, 1995
Aug 95

Level of Govt: State

Function: Driver Licensing

Problem/situation: Getting a driver's license in Texas meant long lines and a 30- to 45-day wait.

Solution: Licenses produced by a digital imaging system.

Jurisdiction: Texas Department of Public Safety.

Vendors: Polaroid.

Contact: Phil Scarfo, Polaroid, 617/386-6228. Mike Spataro, Polaroid Electronic Imaging Systems, 617/386-3573.

AUSTIN, Texas - For 25 years Texas drivers have been getting their licenses the old-fashioned way. Residents would go to the local licensing bureau, fill out forms, have a picture taken - then wait 30 to 45 days to receive a new license in the mail.

But that's changing. The old Texas license will soon fade away to be replaced by one created electronically and mailed within a week.

Texas is replacing its film-based licenses with an all-electronic system from Polaroid Electronic Imaging Systems. "The new Texas licenses have three main benefits," said Col. James Wilson, director of the Department of Public Safety (DPS), the state agency responsible for driver licensing. "They are secure, they are nearly counterfeit-proof and they look great."


Texas is installing 378 workstations in 185 permanent license bureaus and another 72 workstations in rural mobile bureaus. Each workstation digitally captures and stores applicants' personal information, portrait, fingerprints and signature, then transfers the information to a local server.

Overnight, the server transmits the data to DPS headquarters in Austin, initiating a production process that will have licenses, renewals, updates and corrections in the driver's mailbox in five to seven days.

By the end of this year, when the transition to the new electronic system is complete, Polaroid's Texas Document Factory will be producing 20,000 licenses per day. In four years, 13 million drivers will be carrying the new licenses.

The front of the license has been redesigned and color-coded to be more readable and informative, with electronically captured full-color portraits that are larger, brighter and sharper than the old film photos. Because the captured portrait is displayed instantly on the workstation, the DPS agent can retake the photo, which eliminates the problem of closed eyes and awkward poses.

"When we first started looking into electronic imaging systems, we were concerned about image quality," said Judy Sibert, a Driver Records Service manager. "But Polaroid has managed to do so much more with the captured image."


Adult licenses have the portrait on the right side of the license, while portraits of those under 21 are on the left. Under-21 licenses also display the date the driver will turn 21, so an age can be checked without having to be calculated.

Because driver licenses are the most commonly requested form of photo identification, the DPS has expanded the new license's magnetic stripe information system, making it more functional and fully compatible with standard bank and identification card readers.

A standard magnetic stripe, which usually carries a single line of encoded data, is attached to the back of the license. The new Texas license carries three lines of data in the stripe, one of which is the driver's license number. This feature permits merchants, for example, to quickly and easily download into their electronic cash registers the driver's name, address and birthdate when accepting a personal check.

By checking that the electronic data matches the data on the front of the license, the merchant can confirm that the license hasn't been altered. By loading the data in the cash register, the merchant no longer has to manually copy the information for transactions using checks, saving time and eliminating transcription errors.

Eventually, Texas law enforcement officials expect to be able to download to police computers and mobile cruiser terminals all the data in a driver's online file, including portrait, fingerprints and signature.

The entire license is encased in a tamper-evident material. (The same material is used to laminate all inmate identity cards in the Texas state prison system.) An additional feature is the word "Texas" printed in ultraviolet ink on the inside of the lamination. A number of other security features make it virtually impossible to successfully tamper with, duplicate or modify the license.

Texas' old and new systems are both "central issuance," where data and photographs are collected in field offices and the license is produced and distributed from a central location. The alternative approach employed by many states is immediate, over-the-counter issuance.


Under the old Texas system, an applicant had his or her data and portrait taken in the driver license office. When the cameras' bulk film rolls were fully exposed they were shipped to the film processing plant to be developed, printed and laminated.

Then the licenses were shipped to the License Issuance Office, checked for quality, compared with the list of applicants and mailed. If any bulk film rolls were missing or improperly processed, all the applicants on the roll would have to be identified, contacted and told to return to the licensing office to re-apply. The entire process usually took 30 to 45 days. Additionally, all renewals, changes of data (such as addresses or married names) and corrections required a return trip to the license office to be photographed again.

The new system takes full advantage of the latest electronic technology and, with all data and photographs stored electronically, eliminates the need for applicants to return to the office for renewals, changes and corrections.

According to Judy Sibert, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "Many people who are due to renew their old licenses are delaying their renewal and waiting for the new system to be installed in their area," she said. "Having seen how great the new licenses look and what they can do, they want to get a new one for themselves."


Applicants for new licenses go to the license bureau, fill out their form and take it to a DPS agent. The agent collects the fee and inputs all biographical data into the computer.

Following a series of prompts from the workstation to the agent, the applicant's two thumbprints and signature are electronically scanned and captured and their full-color electronic portrait is taken. As each image is captured, the agent checks its quality and may choose to recapture it. When satisfied with all captures, the agent saves the complete electronic record and informs the applicant that the license will arrive in the mail in about a week.

That night the local servers automatically transmit all new records and compressed image data to the department's central mainframe in Austin.

When retrieved for printing, image enhancement software maintains the original image quality, producing portraits with outstanding color, sharpness and overall fidelity.

The next morning, after all local bureaus have downloaded their information, the files are copied and delivered to the Polaroid Texas Document Factory. The cartridge contains all alphanumeric information for the 20,000 licenses received the night before and linking codes to additional data containing portraits, fingerprints and signatures.

The document factory produces all licenses on a computer networked production system. As the tapes are read into the primary production computer the workload is assigned and balanced within the facility.

Licenses are printed on synthetic Teslin sheets, with printing assignments batched according to format and matching the format of the Teslin's preprinted information. A bar code reader confirms that the sheets match the assigned format. All the back-of-license information is printed, including all license numbers in bar code format, crop marks and a single bar code for the sheet batch number.

Polaroid tracks bar codes throughout the production process to maintain "zero gap" document control. The zero gap control process ensures that every license is accounted for. Zero gap accounting is a proven technology commonly used in the control of currency printing.