Technology in recent years has allowed people to use phones to store credit cards, boarding passes, concert tickets and proof of coronavirus vaccinations. Going digital for driver’s licenses is inevitable, transportation officials say, noting that in many jurisdictions, such as the District, residents already provide proof of insurance and car registration through apps.
“We are moving to a digital space, and the driver’s license can operate securely in that space as well,” said Gabriel Robinson, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. “This is indeed the direction that the federal government and our state partners around the country are moving … and we want to be a part of that evolution.”
More than 20 states have considered, tested or launched digital versions of driver’s licenses. Apple has announced plans to include a digital license feature in its software early next year as part of a partnership with several states — including Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah — to roll out driver’s licenses and state IDs in Apple Wallet on the iPhone and Apple Watch.
The Transportation Security Administration also has signaled support. The federal agency will pilot a program to enable the use of the digital version of credentials at some airport security lanes. A timeline for implementation hasn’t been announced.
In the District, DMV officials said the agency is developing a platform that would host the credentials. Robinson declined to provide a timeline for when a digital license would be available to residents, citing the need for the council to pass the bill.
The council voted unanimously Nov. 2 to approve the measure and is expected to give it final approval Tuesday. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who proposed the bill, is expected to sign it into law.
According to city officials, such a system would communicate in real time with the DMV database. Anyone with an expired license would lose the ability to use a digital version on their device.
“The law in no way requires anybody to show their license or ID via a mobile device,” D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the panel’s transportation committee, said at a council meeting last month. “Physical credentials will still work just as they always have, and the DMV has no plans to change that.”
The measure has faced no significant opposition, but some have raised concerns about potential impacts on privacy and on people of color.
A racial equity assessment of the proposal issued in October was inconclusive about effects on Black residents and other people of color. However, the report pointed to data that shows a majority of stops that D.C. police make involve Black people, and noted that “allowing an electronic version of identification as an option to be used in place of a physical form of identification adds an additional variable into interactions such as police stops.”
It added that “should a resident decide to use an electronic device to show their license or permit to MPD and need to reach or search their car for the device, the resident is then put at risk of an officer believing that the resident is reaching for a weapon.”
D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) voiced concern last month about digital identifications opening opportunities for unlawful or unconstitutional searches and seizures by police. He also worried that if a driver gives a phone to a police officer to check a license, the officer could then look at other items on the phone.
“I do think that this is a forward-looking bill. I think we have to believe that the entire country is going to move in this direction. But the concern here, I think, is a real one,” said White, who is running for mayor.
Cheh said the proposal addresses that concern. It states, “The presentation of a license, permit or identification card on a cellular telephone or other portable electronic device shall not constitute consent for a law enforcement officer to access any other content on the cellular telephone or other portable electronic device.”
The DMV is working with D.C. police to educate officers on what the digital license and ID will look like, Cheh said.
The Maryland General Assembly passed a similar bill two years ago authorizing the Motor Vehicle Administration to issue electronic credentials. The agency is developing a digital credential that would be widely available to Maryland residents, spokeswoman Whitney Nichels said.
Virginia in 2016 ran a pilot program to test the use of digital credentials, concluding it was “technically feasible” to provide the option. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles said that program paved the way for current efforts to develop a mobile driver’s license.
Robinson said the digital option will add a level of convenience for residents, saying he expects it will be widely embraced.
“You can leave your wallet or purse at home, but most of us will not forget our phone,” he said. “Once the public gets their ability to have a digital credential, we do feel adoption will be widespread pretty quickly.”