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Hamilton County clerk Bill Knowles


Tennessee drivers who are already licensed only have to go through the new process at renewal. The main change is a delay in receiving a permanent license. Drivers will not have to bring any additional documentation to apply for their license besides what already is required.

Beginning this spring, Tennesseans who apply for or renew driver's licenses also are going to have their identities checked.

Customers at driver service centers or county clerks' offices will leave with paper "interim" licenses. Meanwhile, the state will take a week to run their pictures through photo-recognition technology and compare them against 12 million images in a database.

"It is compared to many other faces to make sure you are who you say you are," said Lori Bullard, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. "It has a measure of security."

Bullard said the new process and extra security checks are meant to clamp down on fraud and identity theft. As another layer of security, drivers will receive their laminated plastic permanent driver's licenses by mail instead of at the counter of a driver service center. That helps verify where the applicant lives, Bullard explained.

The new process, called "central issuance," is being piloted at the Hamilton County Clerk's Office, which has been authorized to replace and renew driver's licenses since 2004. Equipment for the process was installed Thursday.

"It's going to be a major change for our office," said County Clerk Bill Knowles. "It's going to be a change for the public."

Two driver service centers in Sumner and Robertson counties also are piloting the new program.

The change is part of a five-year effort to restructure the license application process since Congress passed the Real ID Act -- a 2005 law requiring stricter, uniform requirements for issuing driver's licenses across the nation.

All states were required to be compliance with the law by Jan. 15. Tennessee had already bought equipment to implement Real ID and had begun conducting background checks for all clerks involved in issuing licenses.

But in December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security once again extended the deadline -- though it has not released a new schedule. Only 13 states, including Tennessee and Georgia, have met the standards of the law, according to The Associated Press, while others have balked at the costs to come into compliance.

"Because it's been put on hold, they may never go back to it," Bullard said. "No one really wants to deal with this enforcement. It's a hot potato."

But Tennessee's Homeland Security Department decided to go ahead with central issuance, which they say will help curb fraud and make them ready for Real ID in the future.

The goal of the Real ID Act of 2005 was to make identification documents more reliable to help prevent terrorism and fraud. To get a Real ID, people would have to provide a certified copy of their birth certificate and their Social Security number.

Once the law takes effect, people will have to have a Real ID to fly commercially or enter federal buildings, among other restrictions.

Georgia has been issuing Real IDs since July, when drivers -- many unaware of the new law -- were told they needed to bring at least four secure documents from an approved list to obtain a "secure" license.