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License durability key for drivers

RALEIGH North Carolina’s “next generation” of driver’s licenses will feature the latest facial-recognition technology. That’s nice if it means you’ll be able to recognize the face in your license photo.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles says the new licenses will be strengthened to resist counterfeiters and thwart identity thieves. But will it crack under pressure in your hip pocket?

North Carolina drivers say their driver’s licenses are fading, splitting, peeling and breaking. They repair them with tape. They get replacements from DMV. The replacements go bad, too.

Charlie Stephenson of Raleigh ran into trouble at the airport when a TSA officer asked to see his photo ID. He pulled out one piece of his license, but the other piece was stuck in his wallet.

“I was questioned about how the ID got broken and why it had not been replaced,” said Stephenson, 50, a high school physics teacher. “I explained that the edge had recently broken off.”

He ordered a new license from DMV after he made it home.

“In less than one year, the corner of the replacement (license) has broken off,” Stephenson said. “I will need to pay to have it replaced if I plan to fly again.”

Dave Davenport’s license “always cracks after a few years,” and he thinks he knows why.

“The way it sits in my wallet, it has a lot of pressure from me sitting on it. That would be my guess,” said Davenport, 54, of Holly Springs. “It’s very brittle plastic. More brittle than a credit card, and I’ve never had any credit card do that.”

Long line of upgrades

DMV launches a license upgrade every seven to 10 years – frequently with the stated purpose of making life harder for underage drinkers, identity thieves, criminals and immigrants in the country illegally. Somehow the priorities never seem to include better durability.

The modern credit card-style was introduced in 1996 to replace Polaroid laminated licenses dating to the 1960s. The new cards included bar codes to give police officers quicker roadside access to drivers’ records. Soon there were holograms and other security measures aimed at discouraging counterfeiters.

Some of the most important security upgrades don’t show up in the individual licenses themselves. Since 2004, DMV has incorporated facial-recognition technology into the process of producing licenses. Each of the 8,000 to 9,000 license and ID photos taken across the state every day is digitally scanned to measure distance between the eyes and other facial geometry – so it can be compared with all photos in the license database.

A silver-foil hologram was added in 2006, criticized in 2007 by conspiracy theorists who saw dark meaning in its ambiguous imagery, and eliminated in 2008.

In 2010, DMV announced a big leap forward with new licenses that would feature vivid, 3-D mugshots laser-etched in black-and-white. But work stalled on the state’s seven-year, $47.5 million contract with MorphoTrak-Safran Group. DMV had spent $5 million by the time the contract was canceled in December.

Now there’s a $73.5 million contract with a different company that has a deceptively similar name. DMV had worked since 1999 with the vendor previously known as L-1 Identity Solutions. The French firm Safran bought L-1 in 2011 and renamed it MorphoTrust of USA. The new licenses will go into production in 2015.

The MorphoTrust contract costs more, DMV says, partly because it covers more than just the yearly production of 2 million licenses and ID cards themselves. There are plans to add more photo stations at DMV offices to reduce waiting times. DMV also says local license examiners now will have “real-time facial recognition capability.” That means they should be able to evaluate your image immediately.

DMV spokeswoman Marge Howell said the new license will have color mugshots, not 3-D laser engravings. While the current licenses are made of PVC, she said, the new ones will use a material “with longer durability” called Exian Evident.

Replacing defective cards

But will the new cards crack? Fade? Peel? Will they last as long as the other cards we carry in our wallets?

“DMV has full confidence that the chosen material will hold up during the issuance period,” Howell said by email. “It is a distinguishing feature of the card that the vendor guarantees a 10-year life expectancy of the card. DMV issues licenses and cards for periods of five and eight years.”

Meanwhile, Howell says, there are two ways to get a replacement for your old, defective driver’s license. You can request a duplicate license online for a $10 fee. Or take the bad one to a DMV driver’s license office for a new one, free of charge.

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