Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Do you know the purpose of license plates, driver’s licenses? Do your legislators?

IT WAS TOO early in the morning when I went to the DMV to renew my driver’s license. Before I pushed my bespectacled face up against the vision tester, I checked with the clerk to make sure I could get my new picture taken without the glasses, since I wear my contacts when I don’t have to leave home so early. Of course so, she said; we do the picture however you want it done.

Truth be told, “have it your way” wasn’t actually the state’s policy on ID photos at the time. It would be a couple of weeks before a boy who considers himself a girl announced that the Department of Motor Vehicles had settled a lawsuit and agreed to let the Anderson teenager wear makeup to get a new driver’s license photo taken.

It was a smart decision for reasons that have nothing to do with avoiding the cost of a lawsuit or respecting the rights of people to determine their own gender identity. It was a smart decision for the same reason it was a smart decision for the clerk to let me have my picture taken without my glasses (and with makeup):

The point of having a picture on a driver’s license is to make it easier for police to verify that the person who produces the license is in fact the person whose name is on the license. If the person in the picture is wearing glasses and the one in the car isn’t, it can raise questions, even if only briefly. If the person is the picture looks like a boy but the person in the car looks like a girl, it can raise questions, perhaps less briefly.

Public safety anyone?

The whole job of the Department of Motor Vehicles — indeed, of all of our laws involving driving — is public safety. Whether that’s making sure the people who drive know how to drive or making sure the vehicles they drive carry insurance or helping police identify fugitives or underage drinkers or stolen vehicles, advancing public safety is why we have this agency.

That’s why I was so encouraged by the DMV’s recent announcement that it is bringing some uniformity to the crazy mishmash of specialty license plates our state issues. Instead of having regular license plates that are blue and orange and breast-cancer-awareness plates that are pink and Donate Life tags that are green and blue and Earth Echo International tags that are yellow and blue and First in Golf tags that are green and yellow and Morris Island Light tags that are magenta and blue and — well, you get the picture — the agency is phasing in new tags that are white with the specialty names at top, set off by blue and red lines, and the specialty emblem on the left.

The DMV cites a 2013 law that created a bunch of new specialty tags but also required the agency to develop “a basic plate design that will be used for all special license plates.” That language was broad enough to allow the current craziness to continue, but instead of doing that, the agency explains on its web site, it designed new plates “in conjunction with law enforcement officials to provide maximum visibility.”

In other words, when a cop tries to pull over an erratic driver in the dark of night on a darker highway, and the car speeds off and the cop chases after it, it won’t take him as long to figure out exactly what kind of license plate that is, and he’ll get word back a lot sooner on what kind of record the fleeing driver has.

Specialty plate profusion

Almost immediately, critics started grousing that the standardized plates are boring. I’m sure that’s nothing compared to what we’ll hear when the Tree My Dog folks try to buy new blue-and-green plates, or the Surfrider Foundation aficionados try to purchase new brown-and-blue tags or the Ronald McDonald House Charities supporters try to buy those bold yellow-and-orange tags or — well, again, you get the picture.

Unfortunately, the DMV has no control over our too-ridiculous variety of specialty tags — there are about 130 sections in the S.C. Code of Laws outlining specialty tags the DMV has to offer; some include multiple tags — an offshoot of the growing misconception that license tags are an expression of our individualism. As if we can’t use bumper stickers anymore.

This year, legislators showed amazing restraint, approving only one new specialty tag.

Nor does the agency have control over the fact that the Legislature has forced it to act as a fund-raising agent for just about any group that wants to get the taxpayers to subsidize its fund-raising — rather than hiring someone to do that job. Want to support your favorite organization? Just buy one of its specialty plates, pay an extra 50 bucks or so, and our state government employees will collect that money and send it along on your behalf.

If you can imagine it, South Carolina probably offers a specialty license plate for it.

As we grow older

Unfortunately, too, for all its other pro-public safety positions, the DMV has taken a decidedly anti-public safety position on the Legislature’s latest effort to abandon safety concerns when constituents complain. This spring, Director Ken Shwedo testified in favor of a House bill that would allow senior citizens to wait 10 years between driver’s license renewals.

His argument was that older drivers are safer than our youngest drivers. Which is absolutely true. Right up until the point where they aren’t.

You see, the main reason for requiring those 65 and older to come back in for a vision test every five years instead of waiting the standard 10 years is that our eyesight — like most everything else — tends to deteriorate a lot faster as we age. Compounding the problem, and as we age, we tend not to want to admit that we might not be able to drive as well as we used to.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Forrester, suggested that the five-year requirement amounts to age discrimination. It’s not, and fortunately the House refused to delete the five-year requirement for seniors; it even voted to make seniors come in and get a new picture taken every 10 years. But the House also declined to do what any reform of that license-renewal law should do: Require everyone to renew their licenses after five years.

I haven’t aged a bit

The vision problem isn’t the only reason we should all be renewing our licenses much more often.

When legislators foolishly voted a decade ago to extend the life of the license, they also allowed drivers to renew their licenses online. When you do that, the DMV mails you a new license with the old photograph. The 10-year-old photograph.

I’m sure a lot of us like the idea of being able to play make-believe that we still look the same way we did 10, or 20, or 30 years ago. But then we might remember that other people are also carrying around 10- or 20- or 30-year-old pictures. And we might go back and reread the beginning of this column, where I talked about the purpose of having a picture on a driver’s license.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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