Is your driver's license up to speed? REAL ID requirements cause confusion in Maryland

Imagine it’s sometime in June and you’re rushing to the airport to catch a flight for your vacation. In the rearview mirror, you see a police car flashing its lights to pull you over.

You might get a speeding ticket — and worse, if you are one of some 66,300 Maryland drivers whose license needs to be updated to comply with federal REAL ID laws by June, but you missed the deadline. The officer will confiscate your license, which of course you need to board the plane.


“That’s why we’re trying to get the word out,” said Motor Vehicle Administration administrator Chrissy Nizer. “You can come in any time and take care of it. Normally people wait until the deadline to take action.”

The rushing-to-the-airport scenario is among those that threw some Maryland drivers in a tizzy after an MVA announcement Thursday about upcoming deadlines for acquiring a REAL ID, a driver’s license or identification card that meets heightened federal documentation requirements.


Passed in 2005 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the REAL ID law created nationwide security standards for states to use in issuing driver’s licenses and identification cards for use at airports and federal buildings.

The Department of Homeland Security has set an Oct. 1, 2020, deadline for REAL ID compliance. Given the likely procrastination, that no doubt would make Sept. 30, 2020, the worst possible day ever to visit an MVA office. But Maryland officials staggered the deadline for drivers to comply.

Nizer said the MVA was caught by surprise in the the fall of 2017 when the DHS told the agency it needed to require everyone who came in for a license to provide the new documentation — of age, identity, Social Security number and residency. Previously, the DHS had approved Maryland’s plan, which dated back to 2009, of only requiring those who were applying for a license for the first time — and not those renewing existing licenses — to provide such documentation, Nizer said.

The reason she was given for the change, Nizer said, was that the state in 2016 started issuing licenses with stars on them, which is the symbol of REAL ID compliance, and DHS wanted the state to have the updated documentation on all of those.

Nizer said 1 million drivers have the starred licenses but not the necessary documentation on file. Drivers have been given deadlines by which they need to come into the MVA and provide the documents, or risk having their licenses placed on a recall list.

The first batch — of 66,300 drivers — should have received notification by now. They face fast-approaching deadlines of June 5, 12 or 18.

The MVA website has a lookup tool as well to check on your deadline, and within several hours of Nizer’s announcement on Thursday, about 33,000 had clicked on it. It was unresponsive at times because of demand, and a bit confusing: Those with deadlines after November do not get a date but a generic message about clicking on a link to learn what documents you need.

The documents include a U.S. birth certificate or valid U.S. passport (or one expired less than five years), for identification; a Social Security card, W-2 form or SSA-1099, for proof of Social Security; and two proofs of Maryland residency, such as an insurance card, vehicle registration, credit card bill, utility bill, bank statement, or mail from a federal, state or local government agency.


Who needs to provide what and by when has proved confusing. But don’t panic. That’s the advice from someone who has followed the REAL ID rollout from the start

“It’s a crisis, but it’s completely manageable,” said Brian Zimmer, president of the Washington-based nonprofit group, Keeping Identities Safe, which supports REAL IDs.

Zimmer said it’s surprising that Maryland would be in this kind of confusion given that it and Delaware were the first states to embrace REAL ID and quickly get their implementation processes off the ground, something he attributes to the large federal presence in this part of the country.

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Getting the entire nation up to compliance has been a rocky road, with some states and groups resisting over concerns ranging from privacy to the effect on undocumented immigrants to just the idea of a “national ID.” In California, for example, news reports said some residents have waited in line for as long as six hours as the Department of Motor Vehicles struggled with technological and staffing issues involved in meeting REAL ID requirements.

Zimmer said that some problems are a result of heel-dragging and opposition to REAL ID, while others are simply due to the nature of the undertaking: Since the law passed in 2005, there have been leadership changes at both at the state and national level, for example. Plus, changing how driver’s licenses are issued across the country requires getting a lot of staff and equipment up to speed, he said.

“When you roll out a really big program like this,” Zimmer said, “training sometimes isn’t sufficient.”


Ragina C. Averella, public affairs manager of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the automobile club is prepared to help the MVA get the word out to drivers that they need to make sure they’ve provided their documentation to comply with REAL ID.

“Maryland has been very pro-active in trying to get ahead of this,” she said. “It looks like they’ve increased their hours of operation, and it sounds like they can handle this.”

Nizer said the MVA has indeed increased its hours, takes reservations, repeatedly emails and sends through regular mail reminders of deadlines, and reaches out at community events to make sure it gets to those who need to provide documentation. She said 2.3 million out of about 5 million drivers have the necessary documentation on file with the MVA.

“We feel like with the steps we’ve taken, there is certainly adequate access,” Nizer said. “Because we started so much earlier, Maryland is in a much better position that others.”