Government

Appointments at Iowa drivers' license offices a success, state says

Iowa DOT looks at keeping appointment-only model beyond pandemic

Ten-year-old Hannah Kirby (center) on Friday shows her photograph on a paper copy of her Iowa identity card to her fathe
Ten-year-old Hannah Kirby (center) on Friday shows her photograph on a paper copy of her Iowa identity card to her father, Michael Kirby, at the Iowa Department of Transportation Service Center in southwest Cedar Rapids. Ethan, 13, (left) also got an Iowa ID card while Michael and mother Stephanie (in background) got their Real ID licenses for a future trip to Florida. The family drove from LeClaire for their appointment. The Iowa DOT has gone to an appointment-only process at its service centers — a change already being planned before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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It may take a while before drivers’ license office punchlines are no longer funny, but long lines and long waits are becoming a thing of the past at Iowa driver’s license stations.

The Iowa Department of Transportation already was making plans to move to an appointment-only model at its 18 driver’s license stations before the coronavirus pandemic “dramatically accelerated” the conversion, Iowa DOT Director Scott Marler told lawmakers recently.

Beginning last March 16, limiting driver’s license services to people who made appointments allowed the Iowa DOT to keep serving the public while adhering to social distance guidelines, he said. There were some growing pains and lessons learned in making the transition from the previous walk-in model.

But feedback from people who have used the new system has been overwhelmingly positive, said Darcy Doty, Iowa DOT director for driver and identification services. That’s because people can go online and schedule an appointment for the services they need at a time that’s convenient for them.

The appointment model minimizes the wait time “so Iowans can be out doing the things they want to do rather than sitting in our service center waiting for service,” Doty said.

“And if it’s a simple renewal, we have people in and out, you know, within 20 minutes,” she said. “That’s a change from the past.”

With the change, Iowans will have to get used to planning ahead when they need to renew a license or need other services, Marler said.

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“It’s kind of like making an appointment with your doctor,” he said. “You don’t just show up at your doctor’s office. You call ahead, go online or whatever the case may be, but you make that appointment before you go.”

Like with scheduling a doctor’s appointment, Iowans won’t have to take their chances the person they need to talk to will be available when they arrive. Doty explained that not every driver’s license station employee can provide every service offered.

Not only was the walk-in model unpredictable for customers who didn’t know how long they would wait for service, it was “really unpredictable for our staff to know who needed what service,” Doty said.

“Now we’re able to plan for that,” she said.

For example, associates primarily focus on renewal and records questions. Specialists and consultants can conduct drive test exams, including commercial drive tests, and skills tests. Consultants also are able to work with more complex customer cases, Doty said.

The appointment model makes it possible for staff to know who their customers will be on any given day and what services they’ll need “so we are better prepared to meet the needs of Iowans that way,” she said.

It also allows the staff to control how many people are in a driver’s license station at any given time.

“We don’t want a large group of people sitting and waiting for service because we need to make sure people are socially distanced,” she said, adding that the appointment model allows the Iowa DOT staff to see as many people per day as it did before COVID-19.

“I’m really proud to say that we’re still serving 18,000 to 20,000 customers every week, which, by the way, that matches pre-pandemic levels,” Marler said.

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There are some drivers, many elderly, who aren’t comfortable going online to schedule their appointments, Marler said, so the Iowa DOT still takes phone calls. And if people do walk in, a greeter will schedule their appointments.

“Sometimes we say, ‘You know, it might be a few minutes before we can get to you,’ but we’ll work with them,” he said.

To schedule an appointment, visit iowadot.gov/mvd/driverslicense or call 515-244-8725 for more information. At some stations, “we are hours out with appointments, some are weeks out,” Marler said. If it’s a matter of urgency, he said the Iowa DOT finds ways to accommodate drivers.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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