Jeff Jacoby

WITH MY DRIVER'S LICENSE expiring in February, I made a trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles last week to renew it. To my astonishment, I was in and out of the RMV branch at the Watertown Mall in just 15 minutes.

From past experience, I had expected much worse. When I renewed my license five years ago -- at a facility the Registry whimsically dubbed a "License Express" -- I had to wait for an hour and a quarter before being served. An earlier renewal had required two trips to the Registry: The first one proved futile when the clerk shut off the computer at closing time, curtly telling the 11 people in line that they would have to come back another day.

So it was a pleasant surprise when my latest encounter with the Registry proved so quick and painless.

Of course it would have been even more painless to renew my driver's license online, but when I tried to do so my application was rejected. It turns out the Registry was listing me under multiple records; the system had generated a new one whenever my address changed, and it was unable to merge them -- or to issue a new license -- unless I appeared in person. "But I've lived at the same address for 15 years," I said to the clerk. He shrugged. "It should be OK next time," he told me.

Yet why should there have to be a next time? Why should keeping an ordinary driver's license up to date oblige anyone to deal with a government agency, in person or online? I hadn't even realized that my license was about to expire until an airport security agent pointed it out to me the last time I flew out of Logan. The Registry no longer sends renewal notices; and woe betide the motorist who gets pulled over with an expired license, an infraction that can trigger a fine of up to $1,000, not to mention a potential arrest.

Try to imagine Visa or Discover requiring you to remember when your credit card is about to expire, and making you get in line at a branch office or go online to renew it. On the contrary: They do the remembering and renew your card automatically. Before the old one expires, you get a new one in the mail. And if there is an anomaly in your account, they typically flag it and alert you right away.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for