Old Laws Never Die — Covid and the DMV

Two weeks to flatten the curve became 18 months of mandates with no end in sight. Government seized new powers from the people to regulate lives. Rules which make no sense dominate us, experiments in compliance not science. How do Covid restrictions end? They likely never will.

I learned all that at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV.) My re-education started when I was told to prove as an American citizen in an American state that I am “resident” here, not simply being an American in America. I’m a good sport and wanted to comply, just like I try to keep up with the latest rules and Purell my terrestrial hands 600 times a day against an airborne virus. I knew threats weren’t inherently political, right, and you just can’t be too careful.

For proof of residence the DMV wanted some sort of olde timey paper trail, returned check stubs and paper utility bills. No one at the DMV seemed aware all this stuff went to “the online” a while ago, and that it is sort of normal to reside in one state with an online bank in another state and no paper bills or statements from anywhere with only a cell phone from an area code from two moves ago and which banks still return canceled paper checks each month anyway? They growled at me for even raising the question.

Like the waitress who has no idea why I need a mask to walk to my table but no mask when I sit at my table, the DMV clerk said she was not allowed to look at my phone screen or scroll through my apps to see evidence of me paying local condo fees, having a local address, etc. I was told instead to go home and print out everything and she’d take a look. And because of Covid, the next available appointment is, let’s see… never. I will have to keep my old McLovin’ license a while longer. I timidly asked why.

“Because of 9/11” the clerk said in that rising intonation voice used by Millennials when talking to really stupid old people. It took me a moment to remember 9/11 as 9/11 was twenty years ago. I asked the clerk where she was on that fateful day and she said “In fifth grade.” I can easily imagine my children 20 years in the future having a similar conversation about why they have to prove their 35th booster shot to go bowling.

I said a silent thanks that our vax passports are all electronic, handy on the same phone my movements are tracked by so if I get lost someone can find me. Think how silly jokes like “Papers, bitte, mein herr!” sound when there’s no paper! LOL.

The problem with old laws enacted for our safety during an emergency is they never go away. They don’t adapt to new realities. Power taken is not returned. Fear becomes the standing justification for everything. I realized while threats aren’t necessarily inherently political, the responses sure are. It’s easy, and politically fun, the claim all the fears over Covid restrictions on our liberties are just conspiracy theories, deplorables gasping. It is easy for the media to ignore that many people opposed to masks are not anti-science but anti-politically charged public policy. The media forget once upon a time a driver’s license was just so you could drive, not a vehicle to gather personal information.

The Real ID law was where my problems at the DMV started. That law was a result of recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, who discovered 18 of the 19 hijackers had legit state IDs. The hijackers were legally present in the United States, most resident and able to prove it, holding legitimately issued student visas for their flight schools and would have passed the Real ID speed bump had it existed then. Nonetheless, in the interest of safety, Something Had to Be Done, albeit the equivalent of a paper condom. Or a poorly fitting dust mask.

So America’s 245 million license holders had to make an in-person visit to their DMV with all these bits of paper in order to obtain a Real ID compliant license. Your local DMV now gathers more information about you than your mother knows and stores it nationally accessible to, well, not sure who, but a lot of people, at an estimated implementation cost of $23.1 billion.

But we’re safer, right, can’t put a price on that. Actually, we will be safer. Though proposed in the smoldering ruins of 2004, delays and rolling implementation mean Real IDs were not required for domestic flights until October 2020, and full enforcement does not begin until May 2023. Until then, keep an eye on your masked seatmates.

The best part of all is the last time anyone actually tested my ability to drive was in 1976, when I tooled my mother’s car around the block and then parallel parked it to the satisfaction of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. In 2021 no one actually checked if I could safely do the actual thing the license was in place to allow me to do.

I can almost hear the Twilight Zone voice saying “And therein lies our cautionary tale. Rules proposed, let’s allow, in good faith often fail to accomplish that what they were originally intended to. Rather, they empower bullies disguised as clerks and waiters who in the name of safety taunt us to provide bits of paper from the scavenger hunt of our lives. But they are merely background players in a bigger game: governments collecting more and more information, placing restrictions without explanation, claiming it is for our own good when clearly it is actually for their good. We’ll check back in a handful of years, to see how many of the Covid restrictions still apply here, at the DMV, or elsewhere… in the Twilight Zone.”

Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People