Lawmakers and everyone else watching last Tuesday’s hearing of the Joint Transportation Committee on Beacon Hill couldn’t have expected much more than excuses from officials at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Before the meeting started, there was no reason to believe they would deliver a satisfying explanation for why a backlog of notices of out-of-state driving infractions grew as large as it did.
Certainly there would be nothing to adequately explain how Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, of West Springfield, arrested in Connecticut on drunken driving charges, was allowed to still drive with a valid Massachusetts commercial license at the time of a fiery wreck in New Hampshire that killed seven motorcyclists. He has since pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide.
On those counts, the hearing delivered as expected. But certainly no one could’ve predicted its revelation of just how wildly dysfunctional the registry has become. The backlog, it was discovered, has existed for years. Those in charge were well aware of it. And they fumbled around trying to figure out how to handle it, instead of forcefully addressing what was clearly, at least to some, a public safety concern.
“I felt that this is very important,” Brie-Anne Dwyer, auditor for the state Department of Transportation, told the committee during the hearing, which lasted more than seven hours. “There were people out there on the roads that shouldn’t be.”
Dwyer found more than 12,000 notices of violations from other states piled up awaiting action at the registry, according to WBUR’s account of the hearing. Transportation Security Stephanie Pollack clarified that many were duplicates, and in fact there were only about 2,500.
Still, in those thousands of notices there were surely many more Massachusetts drivers who’d been arrested on charges of drunken driving elsewhere and, per Massachusetts’ own law, should not have been allowed to continue driving while their cases were processed and heard.
The situation was allowed to fester because those responsible for sifting through that material — the job was moved to the Merit Rating Board, which keeps tracks of other infractions — were simply overwhelmed, set back in part because of computer problems. “I didn’t have the manpower for out-of-state,” Thomas Bowes, director of the Merit Rating Board, told lawmakers.
The problem goes back years, it turns out. Erin Deveney, who resigned her job as head of the registry in the aftermath of the crash, said the department didn’t even have a system for processing those kinds of notices until late 2016. At that point there were about three years worth of cases from other states waiting to be catalogued.
The lack of communication within the registry — and the open acknowledgment, even acceptance of its failures — is uglier than just another portrait of failed government bureaucracy. It's like the bleakest visions conjured by Kafka. That it could be allowed to linger as long as it did is outrageous.
As Dwyer suggested, the collapse of the Registry of Motor Vehicles wasn’t just about people not having points added to their licenses and insurance premiums inflated because of their poor driving habits. It was a failure to act on people who pose a real risk to public safety. The obvious, haunting question is: How many drunken drivers with Massachusetts licenses who caused fatal or injury accidents over the past few years might have been thwarted had the registry been more buttoned up?
Equally troubling is how this failure came to light. But for a nightmarish wreck that took the lives of seven people, most of us would still be in the dark about a backlog of out-of-state notices piling up at the Merit Rating Board.
Deveney resigned amid the fallout from that fatal wreck. But last Tuesday’s hearing clearly shows that a reorganization of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and those held accountable for its failings, should not end there.