Congress’ “Real ID Act” followed a 9/11 Commission recommendation to strengthen the security of state-issued driver’s licenses, which the hijackers had little trouble obtaining from California and other states. The law was meant “to establish and rapidly implement regulations for state driver’s license and identification document security standards” and “prevent terrorists from abusing the asylum laws of the United States,” which sounds like something of an emergency.
It hasn’t quite been treated as such. A dozen years after the measure became law, about half the states are still working on it. They include California, though officials here expect to be issuing licenses that meet the new requirements early in the new year.
With federal deadlines approaching and reprieves expiring, residents of California, 23 other states and five territories were facing the possibility that their driver’s licenses would no longer be acceptable for domestic air travel, requiring them to present a passport or other approved identification for travel within the United States. As a result, a San Franciscan might have needed a passport to fly to, say, Reno. That would have caused significant disruption given that about 60 percent of Americans don’t have passports, and getting one typically takes $135 and up to six weeks.
But California and most of the other laggards recently received another yearlong extension from the Homeland Security Department (though a few others, including New York, remain under review). All the states nevertheless face a 2020 deadline to comply lest their licenses become invalid at airports as well as military bases, federal facilities, and nuclear plants. Then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, now President Trump’s chief of staff, said in June that he would insist on that deadline, calling the Real ID Act “a critically important 9/11 Commission recommendation that others have been willing to ignore, but I will not.”
The California Department of Motor Vehicles plans to offer Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses as an option starting Jan. 22, and a spokeswoman said residents won’t need one to fly until October 2020. Obtaining a compliant license will require presenting multiple proofs of identity at a DMV office.
It won’t surprise anyone who has spent any time at his or her local DMV outpost that the agency has taken 12 years to sort this out. That has created some unnecessary uncertainty, but the agency can limit any further difficulty by rolling out the new licenses according to its current schedule.
Overall, the Real ID experience hasn’t been a model of the nation’s capacity to address the security weaknesses directly implicated by the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil — as opposed to, say, our ability to force everyone to remove their footwear and endure other largely irrelevant precautions. Despite the persuasive arguments for making post-9/11 driver’s licenses more secure than those faked by generations of underage high school students, several states went so far as to pass laws opposing the federal requirements out of misguided paranoia. Others, like California, seem to have slowed the measure’s progress through the considerable force of bureaucratic inertia.
This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.