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Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is city editor of the Napa Valley Register.

Monday was my day of reckoning with the DMV.

Of course I was anxious. Anyone who has been reading DMV horror stories the past couple of months would be anxious, if not fearful.

Lines have been out the door. Waits have stretched a half day or more. Want to make an appointment? They’ll see you in two months.

The fly in the DMV ointment has been the REAL ID program imposed by the federal government which requires more people to appear in person to renew their driver’s licenses.

Sensing trouble ahead, I contacted the DMV in July, three months before my license was to expire. I got a September appointment.

Wanting to get in and get out with a minimum of bureaucratic friction, I prepped in every possible way, or so I thought.

I assembled proof of my U.S. birth, dug out my original Social Security card from a half century ago and corralled multiple documents proving that I lived in Napa.

I made an optometry appointment. When the results revealed my eyes were no longer sharp enough to pass the vision test, I ordered bifocals.

Finally, I slogged through the DMV driver’s manual, reacquainting myself with the three-second rule, the significance of curb colors and other bits of arcane info.

Monday’s appointment was for 1:20 p.m. which presented workplace issues.

Who would put out my part of the next day’s Register if I never return? Do I schedule the entire afternoon as vacation, just in case?

Thinking about such issues made me anxious. Unable to enjoy my lunch, I bolted it down and departed at 12:30 for the DMV.

Parking can be an issue, a coworker had told me. I might get there early only to find the lot jammed. What do you do then, Courtney?

The lot was jammed, but a car was leaving. I got the only spot!

The line was not out the door, but it did fill the foyer, where a lad with a clipboard guided me to the “appointments” line.

Amazingly, there was no line. I walked right up and got ... a number. I would have to wait for actual service.

I found a spot along a wall and settled in. Sixty-five people — the full spectrum of Napa humanity — were doing the same thing. Except for the recorded voice calling out numbers every minute or do, the room was hushed. Where was the expected mayhem?

My number was called within 15 minutes. That’s when I learned I’d made a minor screw-up: I hadn’t filled out a license renewal application online.

How had I missed this? Was I blind?

Directed to a bank of computers, I entered my vital data, then got seen almost immediately by a friendly clerk who examined all of my documents, photocopying and scanning in graceful, fluid motions.

Then she administered the vision test. To my embarrassment, I failed.

Now I’ll do it with glasses, I said.

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The glasses worked.

All that was left was for me to pay $35 and move to another line for my photo and the written test.

I answered the first 15 questions correctly, then missed two of the next three. That wiped the smile off my face. I’d become too cocksure. Buckling down, I survived the test.

The woman ahead of me in the two-person photo line looked as pleasantly surprised as I as to how our day at the DMV was going. Piece of cake, she said.

She, too, had made an appointment months earlier. Otherwise ....

Neither of us wanted to imagine “otherwise.” The main waiting area at DMV was filled with walk-ins whose visits would be measured in hours, not minutes.

My visit, start to finish, was 50 minutes. If I’d filled out the application beforehand, it would have been 40.

Everything had gone splendidly. DMV had accepted my documentation. My new glasses had worked. I didn’t have to take a half day’s vacation.

And in a couple of weeks I would receive my new REAL ID driver’s license that would be good for years and years.

A teenager passing his first driver’s test could not have been any happier.

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Kevin can be reached at 707-256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or


City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.