NJ Old computers stall revamped driver's licenses

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Old computers stall revamped driver's licenses


By Robert Schwaneberg STAFF WRITER

On Jan. 1, the state Division of Motor Vehicles was supposed to introduce a new, tamper-resistant photo driver's license good for 10 years.

It didn't.

Next Jan. 1, the DMV is supposed to implement a new "graduated driver's license" that will impose curfews on drivers under 18 and limit the number of passengers they can drive around.

It won't.

Instead, the Senate is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a bill to delay the starting dates for both programs. The graduated driver's license would be put off until July 1, 2002; the 10-year photo license would be delayed until Jan. 1, 2003.

It is a bill no one is happy about. The state chapters of the American Automobile Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving warn that the delay will lead to more traffic accidents caused by inexperienced or inebriated young drivers.

Even the bill's sponsor, Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), is "disappointed."

''Every month you delay, it means more young people are going to die on the roads," said Singer, who sponsored the graduated driver's license as a way of reducing traffic accidents and fatalities caused by novice drivers.

But Singer said administration officials told him there was "no way" the DMV could implement the two new programs with its current, out- of-date computer system.

''Unfortunately, it's out of my power to force them to do this when they say they can't," Singer said.

DMV Director Richard Kamin said he is not happy about the delay either, but it makes no sense to implement two major new programs until the computer system linking the DMV's field offices is upgraded.

''We want to have the best product for New Jersey," Kamin said. "It would be foolish for us to move ahead without that initial investment into our computer systems."

That sounds like a "smoke screen" to Assemblyman Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), who pushed for the 10-year driver's license, with mandatory photo, in order to combat widespread counterfeiting of licenses that teens use them to buy liquor illegally. He blames such underage drinking for at least some highway deaths.

''This is not something that is technologically challenging," Roberts said. "Every other state in the nation has been doing it, in some cases for decades."

Gov. Christie Whitman, who also championed the new photo license, signed the bill authorizing it on Feb. 25, 1999. It required the DMV to start phasing in the new licenses by January 2000 but allowed Kamin to extend that by one year for "good cause."

''I don't know what's going on here," Roberts continued. "I don't know if it's just because DMV can't do anything right, or if it's a desire by the Governor to delay doing anything until she's out of office."

DMV officials denied they are gun-shy about initiating any major new programs in the wake of the fiasco it encountered with its new auto inspection system, which debuted last December to equipment breakdowns and long lines.

But resolving those problems did mean "the management and systems and legal resources of both the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Transportation have been focused on the new inspection program," DMV spokesman Dana Sullivan said. "I wouldn't blame the entire delay on that."

He said there also was a decision to merge the graduated driver's license with the new photo license, which was "a good idea at the time" but proved unworkable. The new plan, he said, is to implement the graduated driver's license first, but "even with splitting it off, it's still going to take certainly longer than we had hoped."

Whitman signed the graduated driver's license law on Sept. 17, 1998, promising to start it by January 2000. The new rules will require teenagers to wait until they are 18 until they have full driving privileges. Currently, it is 17.

Pam Fischer, a spokeswoman for AAA-New Jersey, said other states have implemented similar programs in six months to a year.

Extrapolating from accidents prevented by Florida's graduated driver's license, an 18-month delay in New Jersey will mean "326 teens will be injured and one teen driver will die," Fischer said.

She said if the state cannot be ready with a graduated driver's license by the start of next year, AAA will call on parents to enforce their own program. That means not allowing newly licensed teenage motorists to drive from midnight to 5 a.m. or carry more than one passenger.

''When you've got a new driver and friends in the car who are being silly, and they're not focused on what they should be doing, somebody could get killed," Fischer said.


Robert Schwaneberg covers government and legal affairs

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 17, 2000

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