It’s a bit nutty in an age where you can tell a disembodied voice in your kitchen to order more milk from the grocery store that someone whose license is suspended for drunken driving in one state can cross a border into another state and basically wipe their record clean. As is painfully obvious now, that’s exactly what was happening for years, at least in Massachusetts, where those kinds of notices from other places were left to pile up in the corner of a state office in Quincy.
Congressman Seth Moulton wants to rework a federal grant program to help states digitize and share that kind of information in something close to real time. The Democrat who represents the North Shore and part of the Merrimack Valley filed the bill last week and announced it Tuesday while standing in front of the Danvers bureau of the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles.
It’s hard to say if the $50 million that Moulton wants set aside is enough to goose states into making these changes, which they should’ve made and implemented years ago. It’s a worthy effort all the same, even as we scratch our heads over how technology that has put the remotest corners of the world within easy reach seems to have skipped over the RMV.
The painful part is that it took the deaths of seven members of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club — Albert Mazza Jr., formerly of Haverhill, among them — to bring this into focus. Those motorcyclists, all current or ex-Marines, died in a crash in rural New Hampshire on June 21. They were part of a group headed to a fundraiser at the American Legion in Gorham when police say a pickup truck towing a trailer crossed the center line. The driver of the truck, Volodymry Zhukovskyy, was under the influence of drugs at the time, according to police, and faces seven charges of negligent homicide.
The horror was deepened by the fact Zhukovskyy should not have been on the road. He'd faced drug- and driving-related charges in a half-dozen states to that point, including one from an arrest for drunken driving in Connecticut that should have led to the suspension of his commercial driver’s license in Massachusetts. For a host of unacceptable, bureaucratic reasons, a notice of that charge sent from Connecticut got lost in a pile of paper in Massachusetts. The discovery of the botched hand-off led to the resignation of the head of the Massachusetts RMV, Erin Deveney.
States do share information; that concept isn’t novel. But one weakness in the National Driver Registry is that it's typically consulted when someone is applying for a driver's license, or renewing one. Gov. Charlie Baker has mused on what it might be like if the information was transmitted and alerts issued from state to state in real time. “In the meantime,” he said in a recent interview with WBUR, “everybody’s opening up a lot of mail.”
The other weakness with the current system, as a failed bureaucracy has showed, is that simply sending notices won't suffice. Someone on the receiving end must act upon them.
As this is primarily an issue of improving the national database, along with lines of communication between and among states, there is clearly an opportunity for Congress to lead. Moulton, a former Marine especially sympathetic to the deaths of fellow “jarheads," is a good person to file the bill.
“State agencies are not sharing driving records,” Moulton told editors from The Eagle-Tribune and North of Boston Media Group on Tuesday. “It’s a problem that is acute to Massachusetts, as evidenced by this tragedy, but is also a problem across the country.”
Much of the focus of Moulton's proposal is ensuring that systems are not just digitized but compatible and inter-operable. By creating a competitive grant — states would have to apply and compete for a share of the money — his idea is to let those that have already developed the best concepts and practices set the standard.
How that happens in practical terms must be worked out. But even if all goes well, and we get a system in which digitized records are shared immediately, individual state registries must also be diligent about receiving information and acting upon it promptly.
Otherwise we’ll just have a pile of good intentions — and the digital equivalent of paperwork piling up in the corner.