Comptroller raises doubt about state's claims on driver license wait times

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/24/16. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting on Wednesday, August 24, 2016.

NASHVILLE - A new Tennessee Comptroller's audit raises doubts about the accuracy of how the Haslam administration measures wait times for driver's license applicants at Department of Safety and Homeland Security-run license stations.

The problem?

"[W]ait times are measured from the time a client receives a ticket at the driver license station, not when the client first enters the line at the state, to the time the examiner enters the client's transaction into the computer upon the transactions," auditors from Comptroller Justin Wilson's office said.

Auditors also uncovered problems in other areas. One finding involved the ignition interlock device program for DUI drivers. The program, auditors wrote, "did not require monthly and final reports from participants before restoring licenses, nor did the program enforce application requirements for installed and installation site owners."

Departmental staffers acknowledged there were no formal monitoring policies or procedures. Without that, the Comptroller's office warned, "the department cannot ensure that only those drivers with unsafe driving habits are identified to have licenses suspended."

Regarding the driver wait time issue, auditors visited several stations to see how it all worked for themselves.

"Although we did not see lines outside the buildings during the middle of the day, some clients stated that they did wait a considerable amount of time before they got their tickets," the 49-page audit says.

Some auditors were told of waits as long as two hours. The department is supposed to get transactions processed in under 30 minutes.

Lengthy wait times have bedeviled the agency for decades, but then-Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons boasted just three years ago that strides were being made.

Auditors noted the first step in the Driver Services Division's Q-Matic computer system process, which is used to track wait times, calls for issuing tickets to each application either upon entering the state or, if the line is longer, setting the ticket issuer up outside the station.

"Driver license station staff are clearly not doing this," auditors said and then went on to raise the key issue. "Without taking into consideration when clients first attempt to get services at the stations (i.e., when they first enter a line), the division cannot accurately measure all customer service delays at these stations."

They called on the state to begin measuring client wait times beginning with their entering a line.

Department of Safety and Homeland Security officials partially concurred with the audit's findings in their official response, saying a new computer system should address concerns.

"To the extent possible, the department is capturing wait time," the department argued. "Q-Matic, the current queuing system, does measure the wait time from the time that the customer 'pulls' the ticket to the time they go to the counter to be processed."

But, they contended, "service time has never been part of the wait time."

That's measured through another means, according to their official response. In fact, the department said, "the old Q-Matic system was never integrated into the driver license system."

Moreover, the department noted, while the department could have contracted with a vendor earlier to address the issue, the decision was made to wait until a new A-List system was in place and "functioning at peak performance."

There was a reason for that, the department said, adding it "would have been counter-productive to get a queuing system before the new driver license system was built and installed."

So after that occurred, the state awarded a contract to Alico, a private vendor, to work on a "queuing system" that would allow customers to "check-in" at a kiosk "as soon as they walked into the driver services center."

Customers previously would stand in line until reaching the information counter, where they would be given a ticket with a time stamp to record wait times. At the time customers got to the counter for servicing, their wait time was manually typed into a computer by the examiner.

"Basically, the wait time began at the information counter and ended at the counter," the department said.

Under the new system, customers walk in and type their name and other information into a kiosk.

"To minimize lines, there are several kiosks in each center" that issue tickets for service with numbers and time stamps, according to the department.

The department has been installing the kiosks across the state with four centers "fully equipped and operating," the department's response notes.

Remaining kiosks are expected to be installed statewide by the end of November.

In other findings:

* In an observation, auditors noted the Driver Services Division also needs to improve both its review of wait times for road skills test appointments and public access to the wait times at the driver license stations.

The Comptroller's office required information on wait times from January 2014 to January 2016. But management was only able to provide information for ten of the 24 months, the audit says.

And auditors sniffed suspciously at some of the data they were given, saying it was "unusual."

"Several driver license stations had exactly the same wait time for the same month." In May 2014, 15 stations had a 24-day wait. Months later in September, nine stations cited 39-day wait times.

The department maintained they are "adequately" tracking the wait times.

* The department "did not have policies and procedures in place" to monitor the assignment of "points" for traffic violations to driver records.

And auditors noted departmental staff "stated that there are no formal monitoring policies and procedures to ensure that the department's process in assigning points to driver license records is done in a manner that ensures these records are accurate and up-to-date."

As a result, watch dogs warned, "the department cannot insure that only those drivers with unsafe driving habits are identified to have their licenses suspended."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.