The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles wrongfully mailed more than a thousand letters last weekend to District residents telling them that their car insurance had lapsed and they needed to pay fines of up to $2,500, city officials said Wednesday.
The erroneous notices — which arrived at homes across the District this week and stoked panic among drivers — have still not been publicly explained by the DMV. Agency officials say they are sending out new letters to those affected telling them to disregard the fines.
DMV spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers said agency officials “were able to identify the issue quickly and get it corrected quickly,” and that as of Tuesday night the mistaken fines had been removed from drivers’ records in the DMV computer system.
The episode is a setback for a government agency that has not traditionally had much good will to squander among those it serves. Mark Sheehan, who was among those mistakenly sent letters, said he thinks the DMV has not been proactive about acknowledging and fixing the problem.
He noted that no statements about the mistake can be found on the DMV website’s home page.
“On something like this, they should not be ducking and hoping no one notices,” he said. “They should be saying, ‘Look, we screwed up.’”
Chambers said alerts went out through the agency’s social media accounts.
Sheehan, a 60-year-old consultant for a government contractor and resident of American University Park, said that on Monday he received letters notifying him that insurance had lapsed on both his family’s vehicles and that he was being fined a combined $4,990 as a result. The letters said that if they didn’t pay by March 10 their registrations would be suspended.
Sheehan said he called his insurance company and confirmed that his coverage had not lapsed, and was told by an agent that other complaints about similar notices were coming in from D.C. customers.
He then called the DMV, where a representative told him his insurance company would need to fax proof of coverage to the office. “I know the DMV gets a lot of people ragging on them,” Sheehan said. “But I’ve got to say, the lady was very polite.”
Chambers said Tuesday that 1,326 notices of lapsed insurance were erroneously mailed out on Feb. 8, affecting 913 people - some of them received letters for multiple vehicles.
Those who received the mistaken letters don’t need to take steps on their own — as Sheehan said he was instructed — to correct the fines, Chambers said. She said that on Wednesday afternoon letters were sent out to the affected customers.
Nobody has yet paid one of the erroneous fines, she said, and if anyone shows up at a DMV office to do so they will be informed that the original letters were sent in error.
She said the agency was looking into how the mistake was made.
“We’re still right now determining how it happened,” Chambers said.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said he also began hearing complaints from constituents early this week, and got in touch with D.C. DMV Director Lucinda M. Babers.
Allen said Babers told him late Tuesday that the mistake resulted from a “programmer error” that automatically generated the letters in the agency’s computer system.