Slow-motion mess unfolds at PennDOT
With a year to go, only a fraction of drivers have applied for new and secure licenses
A year from today, Real ID will become the law of the land. All adult passengers flying on domestic commercial flights will need to present a Real ID to pass through security checkpoints and board their planes.
But aviation and PennDOT officials say the number of Pennsylvanians with Real ID has lagged far behind the anticipated need. Barring a dramatic reversal, it’s inevitable that travelers will learn the hard way about the tightening security laws for air travel, said Debbie Bowman, executive director of the Aviation Council of Pennsylvania.
“The family that has saved for over a year or two for a trip to Disney, they’re going to show up at the airport and they’re not going to be allowed through because they don’t
have Real ID,” Bowman said.
In the wake of 9/11, Congress passed a law requiring state identification cards meet specific standards to be recognized for federal purposes such as boarding a domestic flight, going into federal offices or entering a nuclear power plant. These changes were intended to standardize the vetting process, a response to several of the 9/11 terrorists having legal state driver’s licenses.
Driver’s licenses are the most common form of Real ID, and Pennsylvania officials estimated that 2.5 million residents will need them to board domestic flights or enter some federal facilities. Bowman said the Aviation Council believes the state estimate is low and that 4 million people will need Real ID driver’s licenses.
No matter what the actual total is, the number of Pennsylvanians with Real ID is nowhere near that amount. As of mid-September, about 372,000 Pennsylvanians received a Real ID driver’s license, PennDOT spokeswoman Melanie Baldwin said. Even if you consider that thousands of Pennsylvanians will be able to use other Real IDs such as military IDs or a valid passport, the low number of Real ID driver’s licenses has experts worried.
At this point, 177,000 people would need to apply for and receive a Real ID every month to meet the state’s estimate. PennDOT believes about 1.3 million Pennsylvanians will have a Real ID driver’s license by the Oct. 1, 2020, start date, Baldwin said.
Tom Stoudt, executive director of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, worries that people are waiting until closer to the deadline before applying. If that’s the case, the state’s license centers will be swarmed with people late next year. He fears the centers could resemble a Best Buy on Black Friday with lines out the door.
“It’s not like you’re losing any money by going early. There is nothing to be gained by waiting. If you wait, you’re going to lose your window,” Stoudt said.
He also stressed that while some people may not plan to fly, it may pay off to be prepared for an emergency. Something as common as a sick relative in another state could create a sudden need to travel quickly. Not having a Real ID handy would make an already stressful situation worse, he said. Most people don’t leave home without a driver’s license, making it a safer investment than a passport that may be stored out of sight, he said.
“I’m telling you, one of the things people are going to leave at home in their safe is their passport,” Stoudt said.
Waiting to get a Real ID could create issues if applicants encounter a snag, Baldwin and Bowman said. Pennsylvania drivers are required to present a proof of identity (typically a state-recognized birth certificate), their Social Security card and two proofs of residency such as a bank statement or a utility bill. If the driver’s name no longer matches the name on their birth certificate — if they married or were adopted, for example — they would be required to present documentation showing the name changes from their birth certificate name to their current name.
“While it is true the date is a year away, customers need to know that if they want a Real ID before the Oct. 1, 2020, date, they need to start now to make sure they have all the documents needed,” Baldwin said.
Acquiring the right documentation can be tricky, Bowman said. Hospitals used to hand out unofficial birth certificates, and many applicants don’t realize the difference until they’re in line at the license center. Others may have lost their Social Security cards or may need to visit county courts to acquire marriage certificates or divorce documents to note name changes.
The process has been complicated by Pennsylvania’s efforts to stymie counterfeiters, Bowman said. PennDOT changed the look of its licenses in 2017, right around the time the state agreed to comply with Real ID requirements. As a result, many drivers mistakenly believe they have a Real ID, she said. The easiest way to spot a Real ID is to look for a gold star in the top right corner.
Bowman could only laugh when she recounted how her adult daughter made this mistake even though Bowman spent the last two years trying to raise awareness about what Real ID is.
“I think there’s going to be a great deal of confusion,” Bowman said. “It is going to take a lot of communication.”