Wednesday, December 13, 2006

We need more variety on licenses

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on December 9th, 2006:

When I went to get my North Carolina driver's license this week, I had no idea it would be such a thought-provoking experience. Where else can you go to sit around for 45 minutes while the employees decide whether or not you're a sex offender and be tested on your knowledge of driving farm equipment in the same day?

When I got to the mobile unit that sets up in the parking lot across the street from the legislature several days a month to provide convenient services to the elected officials and those like me who work near them, the first thing they did was look at all of my identification documents. Fair enough.

The next thing they did was put my name into some sort of national sex offender database, which had Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' picture on it.

When they typed in my name, not only did the one registered sex offender in the country named Tom Jensen pop up, but also those of the many Tom Johnsons across our land.

I'm not sure whether this was proper procedure or not but the folks running the office, who were exceptionally nice, felt they had to go through and look at the pictures of every sex offender named Tom Johnson in the country to make sure I wasn't any of them. The unit only had a dial up connection, so this took an eternity.

While they were looking at pictures of 47-year-old men from Missouri, I took the written driving test.

It had never occurred to me to bone up on the rules about driving tractors on the highway or what rules I would have to follow if I was driving a school bus, but common sense prevailed and I passed the test.

Unfortunately, at this point they still hadn't determined my status as a sex offender, so they told me to go to work and call back later to see if they had found me yet among the list of sex offenders named Tom Johnson who live in states I've never been to.

When I got to work, my co-worker and friend Meagan Honnold asked me whether I was going to get the state seal, a lighthouse or an airplane as the background for my license.

I said I would probably get the seal, but that I didn't find any of the options to be particularly compelling. Although I must say I like the airplane because it really ticks off people from Ohio, and if there's one thing I like as a Michigan native, it's ticking off people from Ohio.

But I digress. Meagan, a native of Hendersonville, told me that one thing she didn't like about the choices for license backgrounds was that none of them represented the western part of the state. She's absolutely right -- the airplane and lighthouse are certainly symbols primarily associated with eastern North Carolina. Maybe the bias in license choices harkens back to the days where the state was governed by the eastern gentry.

There's no shortage of symbols of the west that could be added -- Grandfather Mountain, a dogwood tree, Mt. Mitchell or even a generic tribute to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Adding some of those western choices would also solve another flaw with the current menu. Meagan and I, good Sierra Club employees that we are, also agreed it was strange that with North Carolina being one of the most physically beautiful states in the country all of the options reflected man-made structures.

Having some license designs that represent the physical diversity of the state would be a good thing.

There already are some good choices for the eastern part of the state, and we had come up with ideas for the western part of the state, but how to represent the Piedmont? A few ideas come to mind.

A race track would acknowledge the importance of places like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham as the birthplace of NASCAR.

You could also represent the region's beacons of higher education with the Old Well or N.C. State's bell tower.

Having identified potential solutions to the pressing issue of lack of diversity in driver's license background choices, I realized it was time to head back to the DMV to see if I had been cleared as a potential sex offender yet.

When I got there I was informed that, indeed, "none of the Tom Johnson sex offenders looked anything like you!" You don't say. And I'm sure the nation is that much safer for them having gone through that ever so extensive search.

The process may have been a little more time-consuming than I had hoped for, but it gave Meagan and me a good opportunity to have a discussion about what features of North Carolina we love that we probably otherwise would never have had. I hope someone from the N.C. Department of Transportation will read this column and take our ideas to heart.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.



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