EDMOND — Despite new online scheduling capabilities and occasional Saturday appointments, frustration with the state department that administers driver's license testing continues to boil over.
The busiest time of year for Department of Public Safety's testing sites is still weeks away, but already Oklahomans looking to obtain or renew their driver's licenses are lining up hours in advance.
Dozens who watched the sun come up outside the testing site in Edmond on Friday were turned away or forced to schedule appointments two weeks out after only the first 13 people in line were afforded an opportunity to test.
“It's like waiting for concert tickets or something — it's ridiculous,” said Tina Dupree, an Edmond hospital nurse who left her graveyard shift an hour early and still didn't make the final cut. “I need a driver's license before two weeks and my only day off is Monday, so it looks like I'm going to have to come at like 4:30 in the morning.”
Long lines at driver's license sites is a common gripe across the country, but in Oklahoma a series of budget cuts and staff shortages has made the wait excruciating.
Last summer, lines began forming at some testing sites as early as 2 a.m.
“They need to privatize it; the state can't handle it,” said Floyd P. Davis of Oklahoma City, who waited in second place with his 16-year-old daughter, Myriah, at the Edmond test site on Friday.
In first place was Nick Henley, who showed up at 4:45 a.m. Friday and spent the morning watching YouTube videos on his phone until the 7 a.m. opening.
As Henley, the Davises and the others piled in, Kelly Akin, exam director, handed each of them a hand-numbered card. When Akin reached No. 13, he stopped.
“Everybody else coming in, take a number out of the box and have a seat,” he said. “We don't know yet if we will pull you or not — we don't know until closer to eight o'clock.”
But with seven others scheduled for test appointments that day, it was clear by 8 a.m. that no one else was going to make it.
Public outcry over the difficulties of taking a driver's test encouraged Department of Public Safety officials last summer to take a look at ways of making the process more efficient.
First, the department closed testing sites for a day and brought examiners to Oklahoma City for a customer service workshop. Then, starting with fall and winter breaks, the department began paying its examiners overtime to accommodate the rush of student test takers.
Now the state is starting to see results with its new online appointment-making process, said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph, an agency spokeswoman.
“And it is going to be better, but it's not something that's going to happen overnight,” Randolph said. “We're just asking people to be patient with us.”
The department spent $12,000 on nearly 430 hours of overtime pay during Thanksgiving last year and spring break this year, Randolph said.
Along with regular testing, 900 people were accommodated during the two-week period of spring break in March alone, Randolph said. The department this month again began allowing Saturday testing through the end of June or until funding runs out, she said.
And more than 1,000 people have opted to avoid the lines and schedule their tests online with an appointment program unveiled in March, she said.
“We're trying to think of all these things that help, that are going to make the situation better and not worse,” Randolph said.
But perhaps the greatest impact could come in the form of legislation.
Senate Bill 652 by Sen. Don Barrington, R-Lawton, was approved by both the House and Senate and awaits the signature of Gov. Mary Fallin.
If it becomes law, it will increase fees associated with obtaining or renewing a driver's license, but much of the funding will go toward increased staff and possibly the reopening of testing sites closed several years ago.
Increasing the fee for a general four-year driver's license from $21.50 to $33.50 — as well as similar increases in commercial licenses, learner's permits and identification cards — could mean an additional $8.7 million for the department, Barrington said.
It's enough to buy some expensive public safety communications systems, set aside some cash for the state's general revenue and still hire as many as 22 driving test examiners, he said.
“I'd be willing to say that probably every legislator in the state last summer got a phone call from a constituent dealing with a driver's license,” Barrington said.
Randolph said there are currently 98 examiners working for the department, down from 105 last summer, but that nine new hires are in examiner school right now with seven more scheduled to be hired in the next month.