NASHVILLE — The estimated 38,000 Hamilton County residents who used Tennessee's driver services center in Red Bank during Fiscal Year 2018 might be forgiven for thinking they suffered through the state's longest wait times to get licenses, ID cards and other services.
After all, their average wait time doubled the state's 24-minute average wait-time standard.
But it turns out the Red Bank center had only the second-longest wait time among the 44 driver services stations operated by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
A just-released audit from state Comptroller Justin Wilson's office shows the dubious honor for having the longest average wait time went to a Nashville driver services center on Hart Lane. Residents waited an average of 28 minutes beyond the 24-minute state standard, based on information auditors were able to glean.
The situation may actually be worse than that, according to the performance audit.
That's because auditors found the Department of Safety was not accurately measuring customer wait times due to a previous vendor's malfunctioning or out-of-service self-service kiosks.
As it is, a quarter of the state's driver services centers had excessive wait times well beyond the standard, according to the audit, which covers FY 2018.
When responding to a FY 2016 audit that found similar problems, the management of the Department of Safety's Driver Services Division developed a process to measure customers' wait times at driver services centers. And the division even contracted with a vendor to implement a queuing system.
"However," auditors wrote, "according to management, the vendor did not meet the expectations outlined in the contract. The division had issues with accurately measuring customers' wait times. In addition, wait times still exceeded standards at some driver services centers."
That led to the cancellation of the vendor's contract last October as the state issued an emergency contract with a new vendor selected, according to the audit.
While Department of Safety officials didn't dispute the most recent findings, they noted about 75% of driver services centers were meeting the division's standard. Moreover, they pointed to another finding that 75% of centers achieved the on-time waiting standard for more than six months out of the year.
Still, the department said, strategic evaluations of the centers "will continue on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis" to ensure everything possible is done to meet defined performance standards.
Officials also vowed to "continue to collaborate with the state's new queuing vendor to ensure the queuing system and hardware are fully functional." 38,339
Wait times at the Red Bank services center, which served 30,680 in FY 2018, exceeded the Safety Department's average standard for five months running, according to the audit. Nashville's Hart Lane site exceeded average time waits for a solid year.
Meanwhile, some of Tennessee's busiest services centers did slightly better.
For example, the No. 3 lowest-performing center was Nashville's Hickory Hollow station. The center served about 82,500 people, according to the FY 2018 audit. Average wait times were pegged at 22 minutes which exceeded state standards for 12 months straight.
A Shelby County state services center on East Shelby Drive, meanwhile, served an estimated nearly 111,000 people. Average wait times were 20 minutes with the center exceeding expected state wait times for eight months running.
The fight for the fifth longest average wait times was a three-way tie between centers in Murfreesboro, Dickson and Shelbyville. Average waits over the average time was 15 minutes at each.
Meanwhile, Hamilton County's second driver services center in the Bonny Oaks area was a breeze by comparison. The comptroller audit found wait at the center, which served about 55,500 people in FY 2018, averaged about five minutes over the acceptable 24-minute standard. Still, it exceeded state guidelines for 10 months.
Seventeen centers, including McMinnville, West Knoxville and Sevierville, did not exceed the state's 24-minute acceptable wait length.
Other critical findings from the audit include:
— The commercial driver's license program, which requires all drivers of commercial motor vehicles to hold a CDL to operate larger and more complex vehicles, was not meeting state and federal domicile requirements for some drivers who obtained CDLs and commercial learner's permits.
— The Driver Services Division was also not meeting federal requirements to record truck drivers' traffic violation convictions within 10 days of a conviction 26% of the time.
It's the worst record among seven states bordering Tennessee, although the data excluded Mississippi.
And the problem apparently isn't the safety department's fault, according to auditors who pointed a finger at local courts in their observation noting the problem, saying "the division experienced delays in receiving traffic violation convictions from local courts, which directly affected the department's ability to meet the requirement."
State law mandates courts report criminal convictions to the Driver Services Division within five days after the date of a truck driver's conviction. While the state has an electronic filing system, a number of court operations are still not fully computerized — lacking adequate financial resources in some cases — so they mail the paperwork to the state.
Without the ability to obtain all local courts' traffic violation convictions, the division "cannot ensure driver records are current for local courts and other states," the audit says. "If records are not current, drivers who have not obeyed traffic laws may remain qualified for the CDL, thus jeopardizing the safety of other drivers."
Auditors suggested the state begin tracking the courts' compliance. If they refuse to cooperate, auditors said, the department "should consider amendments to state statute concerning enforcement provisions or changes in reporting timelines."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.