Driving Me to Digital Distraction

Philip Berne - May 7, 2011
Driving Me to Digital Distraction

First, I want to say that this is all my fault. I’m going to save commenters the trouble of pointing out that I was irresponsible, perhaps even a bit entitled, and anything I’m going to gripe about could have been solved by a rational adult who takes care of their own responsibilities. With that said, I’m going to now tell you the story of how I officially became a Texan, and how it could have been prevented.

Texas is the fourth state in which I have been issued a driver’s license. I got my first license in Maryland when I was 16 and 1 week old. I would have gotten it on my birthday, but I failed the driving test. I took too long parallel parking. After years of living, and parking, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, I am a parking ninja. Seriously. I wear all black and sneak around in my car on rooftops. I can smell parking spaces opening up over a great distance. With one bare foot on the ground, I can feel the vibration of an engine coming to life, a turn signal being engaged.

I kept my Maryland license through my college career in Boston, and my first stint living in New York City. When I returned to Boston years later, I got a Massachusetts state license so that I could vote in the presidential election. My candidate lost anyway. Getting a Mass license was easy. Just turn in your old license and they give you a new one. Maybe there was an eye exam, maybe a short written test. In any case, no real trouble.

When I moved back to New Jersey, it was voting again that made me give up my Mass license. I don’t understand why I had to fork over these ID cards. The driver’s license snapshot is actually my best angle. Until my recent Texas license photo, in which I am clearly displaying the warning signs of a stroke victim, I thought these were good pictures. Why not let me keep them? It’s not like I’m using someone else’s identity. And the licenses expired, so I can’t pass them off as valid ID. They are simply souvenirs.

So, New Jersey license. New Jersey eye test. New Jersey written test, which I remember was less academic than the Mass written test, and had far more cursing. New Jersey title for my car. New Jersey plates.

In the Northeast, New Jersey license plates signal to other drivers that you live somewhere that probably smells bad. When we moved to Texas, I brought my car. I left the Jersey plates on for a while. Too long. The neighbors noticed. When I met someone new while walking my dog, the first thing they would say is “Oh, you’re the one with the New Jersey car.”

I liked those plates. In Texas, New Jersey plates signal to other drivers that you probably know the Sopranos. They get out of your way. They don’t look so shocked when you honk your horn and give them the finger. Plus, if I ever got pulled over for blowing a stop sign or making an illegal turn, I could always use the time-honored “I’m not from around here” excuse, as if there are no stop signs or prohibited U-turns in New Jersey.

Texas law says you have to convert to being a Texan within 30 days. I kept my license and plates for almost 2 years. Actually, my license expired in January. On the day it expired, I decided it was time to trade in for a local ID. The problem was that our movers lost a box with all of our most important documents. My birth certificate. My social security card. The title to my car. Pretty much a make-your-own-me kit, all in one box. Instead of bringing my social security card, I did what my wife had done 2 years earlier and brought my college transcript, which has a clearly marked SS# on it. But while this was acceptable from her, from me they weren’t buying it.

I drove for months with an expired license. Then I lost my wallet. That souvenir Jersey license was gone for good. Finally, I received replacements for my birth certificate (a certificate of live birth, not the long form certificate) and social security card, and I headed to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

On the way there, I was pulled over. The police officer asked to see my license. Sorry, I said, I lost my wallet. No license. Car registration? Also in my wallet. With my insurance card. Completely slipped my mind to get those things replaced. The officer was very kind, as I have found with all Texas police. She let me go with a citation. She could have taken me to jail and impounded my car. If I get a license and replace the other documents within 20 days, it all goes away.

Why do we need all of these forms of ID? Why do we need all of these papers? Haven’t we moved beyond plastic cards and small slips of paper embossed with a state seal? It’s time for identification to go digital. Maybe it’s time to change our idea about how we identify ourselves altogether.

I definitely see the need for government identification. A number attached to an actual being, separate from their name. Names change. Faces change. Age, height, weight, marital status, address, all of these things change. There needs to be a consistent way that the government can identify you so that you can take advantage of government services in a unique way. I simply can’t believe that the smartest way to handle this identity crisis is for the government to issue a series of small slips of paper to 325 million people. A birth certificate. A social security card. A passport. A driver’s license. These all say the same thing. Here I am. This is me.

These things need to be consolidated and digitized. I am all for a national ID program, perhaps because I have been relying on my passport for identification since January, and that’s as close as we get to a national ID. I needed my birth certificate and social, as well as a photo, to get a passport. So why do I need those former documents again and again? Isn’t the passport enough?

I agree with taking a vision test and even a written test to keep your driving credentials up to date. There are horrible drivers on the road, and there needs to be roadblocks to keep them from getting any worse than they are. But the little plastic and paper cards simply make no sense. I have a phone with NFC capabilities. Why not store my information there? That plus a fingerprint, or a retinal scan, should be enough to prove I am really me.

I know there are privacy advocates who balk at the idea of a national ID. Get over it. So, you don’t trust the government. I understand, but do you really trust your local state government more than the Federal government? You’ll use a state ID, but not a Federal one? Have you seen how the states handle their budgets? Their education system? The Federal government, and a Federal ID, is certainly the lesser of two evils.

So, it was my fault that I didn’t get my license changed when I moved to Texas. It’s my fault I lost my license, my car registration and insurance card. It’s my fault that I left such vital, and portable, documents as my social security card and my birth certificate with a moving company. I accept the blame, and I suffer the inconvenience and consequences of my actions. But these things are silly anachronisms. It’s time for us to consolidate and go digital. We live digital lives, make digital friends and hold digital jobs. It’s time for us to have a proper, digital identity.

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