TRAVERSE CITY — Ryan Ward waited two months for Friday to roll around.
The recent retiree and Traverse City resident needed a new driver’s license and new license plates. That meant he needed an appointment at the Secretary of State office — which lately is about as prime and sought-after as waterfront property along Grand Traverse Bay.
Ward booked the appointment two months ago, and appointments are currently booking out into February for people who can only conduct business inside a Secretary of State office. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down offices and caused a backlog of transactions to build up, creating more demand without more room.
“We thought it was a mistake,” Ward said. “But it’s government efficiency at its finest.”
Many transactions — new driver’s license, state ID, license plate renewal stickers — can be completed online or at one of more than 100 SOS kiosks in Michigan. But those needing to complete multiple transactions, get a new license because of an address or name change or transfer the title of their vehicle need an in-person appointment.
Drivers can roll the dice and try to get appointments the next day. Slots open up at 8 a.m. and noon to book an appointment during a four-hour window the following day. Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for the Michigan Secretary of State, said it might take a couple of tries but it’s people’s best bet if a months-long wait isn’t an option.
“People should definitely check if they need to go in person,” Wimmer said. “There’s pretty much no situation where you need to get your tabs renewed in the office.”
People noticing more cars without license plates on the road aren’t seeing things. Buyers of new or used cars in need of new plates will have to drive around sans license plate until their appointment dates comes around.
Ward said the only inconvenience was how long he had to wait. He praised the Secretary of State for the detailed information found online, appointment reminders being texted to him and the overall ease of the experience. Just a little patience was required, Ward said.
“It wasn’t timely, by any means,” he said. “But the Secretary of State is just doing their best at this point.”
Some, like Amy Kudary, did not have to wait as long as Ward.
Kudary, a physician assistant in Traverse City, managed to make an appointment last week to get a new driver’s license, which she tried to do back in March — right after offices around the state began closing.
She patiently waited in her car until her appointment time Friday, and said she was happy to do so and happy the Secretary of State office put in precautions to stem the spread of COVID-19 and to make services available online.
“I would rather see you driving around with an expired license then to see you in the hospital right now with COVID and a tube down your throat,” Kudary said.
Kudary is also hopeful some of the practices put in place to keep people safe might stick around.
“Maybe some good will come out of this,” she said.
Some understanding seems to be coming out of the situation already.
Ward said he wasn’t concerned about getting pulled over for expired tabs or getting a ticket for an expired license because he expects police officers know the backlog is an issue.
“Officers know this is a challenging time for everyone. Right now, everything’s expired,” he said. “If we did get pulled over, I’d imagine the officer would understand our reasonable explanation.”
Traverse City Police Sgt. Matt Richmond confirmed just that.
Traverse City Police officers are not issuing tickets for expired driver’s licenses, license plate tabs and registrations that expired after March 1 and through Dec. 31, Richmond said. Anything before that, that driver is out of luck and likely to leave with up to a $500 fine for a first offense. Officers also are not pulling people over for not having a license plate, even those without a paper temporary one.
Having proof of an upcoming appointment to show the officer doesn’t hurt, but Richmond said that isn’t necessary.
“They’re given leniency for that,” Richmond said. “That’s not necessarily your fault that you can’t get in yet, and they’re going to let you go.”
Officers are checking VIN numbers to make sure the car is not stolen and that the driver has current auto insurance, Richmond said.
Wimmer did not have data on how many licenses and plate tabs have expired during the pandemic and have not been renewed, but she said the backlog of those is much less than it was when the shutdown began. Wimmer said most of those were handled by September.
“People should definitely check if they need to go in person. There’s pretty much no situation where you need to get your tabs renewed in the office.” Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for the Michigan Secretary of State