I blame my recent difficulties in renewing my Hawaii driver’s license on Osama bin Laden.

Sure, the al-Qaeda terrorist was killed in 2011. But the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks a decade earlier and the need for the authorities to track suspects forever changed the way Americans are approved to drive automobiles.

Fortunately for denizens of Honolulu a visit to the DMV can be a relatively smooth, even satisfying process. But a lot depends on drivers following instructions and planning ahead.

Unfortunately, I did neither, even though the City and County mailed me a reminder well ahead of my license expiration date and informed me what I should do about it. My bad.

But I have since learned a lot and ended up getting my license five days before it expired. Permit me to now make a public service announcement to make your experience a more positive one.

Otherwise, you could be facing a lot of bureaucratic stress. And come Oct. 1, 2020, you may have trouble boarding an airplane if you don’t have the necessary identification.

The REAL ID Act

In 2005 the U.S. Congress passed the REAL ID Act  whose short title was the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, 2005.

The act enacted the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the federal government set minimum standards for the issuance of sources of identification, including driver’s licenses. The purposes apply to accessing federal facilities, nuclear power plants and boarding commercial aircraft.

I’m old enough to recall when all you needed to board an airplane was a ticket, and not necessarily one in your own name. That was a long time ago.

But when October arrives next year, travelers aged 18 and over will have to present a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or other acceptable form of identification (such as a U.S. passport or permanent resident card) to fly within the United States.

Beginning last month TSA started posting signs at airports nationwide about the requirements. Approved driver’s licenses feature a gold star in the upper corner.

TSA warns, “Critically important, on October 1, 2020, individuals who are unable to verify their identity will not be permitted to enter the TSA checkpoint and will not be allowed to fly.”

Click here for more on REAL IDs.

No P.O. Boxes, Please

Once the REAL ID Act became law, Hawaii and other states passed enabling legislation.

Consequently, as of March 5, 2012, local applicants for licenses and other IDs in all Hawaii counties are required to provide “original or certified” (and not expired) documents to prove each of the following categories: 1) legal presence, 2) legal name, 3) date of birth and 4) Social Security Number.

And, as of May 1, 2014, applicants have to provide valid documentation for their principal residence address in Hawaii. Click here for information on that and more.

I cleared hurdle No. 1 with my U.S. passport and an un-laminated, original SSN card. But I failed to clear hurdle No. 2 because I have used a local post office box for decades. That includes for utility bills, pay stubs, vehicle registration, W-2s, financial statements and the like.

A screen shot showing the earliest available appointments at driver’s license sites as of May 30, 2019.

So, I changed my P.O. box address on two of the above documents to my current street address and then went to make a DMV appointment online.

(Technically, Oahu has a Motor Vehicle, Licensing and Permits Division, part of the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Customer Services. But everyone knows what a DMV is.)

And that’s when I discovered that most appointments are booked weeks and months in advance, and the time slots fill up quickly. At the Fort Street Satellite City Hall, for example, the next available driver’s license appointment is not until Sept. 13 (this was as of Thursday).

That’s the case at practically every place on Oahu for renewing licenses: For the Koolau site it’s July 17, for Kapolei it’s Aug. 19, for Hawaii Kai it’s Sept. 23 and so forth.

I reluctantly booked the next available opening at the Pearl City site: 9:30 a.m. on June 14 — several weeks after my license was set to expire and many miles from my home and workplace.

By chance, a few days later, I happened to check the city’s website again. Amazingly, there was an opening at 3:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday.

Even more amazing: When I drove to the Pearl City driver’s license center, located under an elevated section of H-1 off Second Street, there was no line. I even got there a little early and — get this — a kindly clerk asked me if I needed any help. She helped me get my license at the counter, where a photo of a beaming Mayor Kirk Caldwell smiled down upon us.

I was in and out of the DMV in less than 30 minutes, temporary renewed license in hand. I happily drove down Kamehameha Highway heading back to town, marveling at the elevated rail line on my left and the Pearl Harbor Bike Path on my right, both hinting at a possible future in which people will no longer need a driver’s license.

Don’t Wait To Renew

The city Department of Customer Services launched the online appointment system in April 2018, and though the agency has worked to get the word out, many are still in the dark.

That’s why Customer Services is encouraging people to schedule license renewal like they do annual physicals and dental visits: well in advance. In fact, the city allows renewal as early as six months before a license expires, and to make an appointment 45 days in advance.

“For most of us we must renew our license once, just once, every eight years,” Customer Services Director Sheri Kajiwara said in an email. “We are trying our best to improve the system to the benefit of everyone. But we need the public to educate themselves on these new federal requirements, for national security purposes that came into play as a result of September 11 tragedy.”

Sheri Kajiwara is the director of the city’s customer services department.

It’s taken time to catch on, but Customer Services says about 72% of people have handled their transactions through the appointment system.

The wait time on average (assuming your paperwork is in order) is about 20 minutes, compared to the five hours that is typically needed for those who wait until the last two weeks before their license expires.

Folks can still walk in to the DMV, but I don’t recommend it. Phone call appointments are not allowed. You can print out the application or pick one up at the DMV and fill it in before your appointment.

Bring cash in case credit card payments are not accepted. And if you don’t use the computers much, I’d suggest you use your smart phone to make an appointment or ask a relative or friend for help.

One other thing: There is an eye test at the DMV, and I had to squint to read it. If you are worried about that, a note from your doctor verifying your vision should work.

Eighteen years after the terrorist attacks, Americans are still making adjustments, Kajiwara explained.

“We all know that our world has never been the same since,” she wrote. “I miss taking that box of manapua to the gate to see my grandma off to Kauai. I miss welcoming my friends off the plane at the gate with fragrant lei. But we have all had to adjust to this new world.”

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