Q: My driver’s license is about to expire, and I’ve heard horror stories about long waits to schedule an appointment with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Is there a way to navigate a trip to the DPS without losing my ever-loving mind?

A: Not to gloat, but the Texanist’s last interaction with the DPS went off without even a hint of a hitch. The matter was a simple class C renewal, and the Texanist learned that he was eligible to take care of this bit of business without an office visit. Thus, he was able to tend to everything online, which is likely the reason for his remarkably unremarkable experience. 

The Texanist keeps up with current events, though, and his own good fortune notwithstanding, he is fully aware that there has been, for some time now, trouble afoot for those seeking to conduct state-mandated business at this particular agency’s offices. A steady flow of newspaper articles over the last few years have recounted the problems, which, despite some efforts to alleviate them, seem to be statewide and without resolution. 

“Long waits persist at driver’s license offices,” lamented the Houston Chronicle in January. “ ‘It interferes with your life’: Texans play the waiting game to secure a DPS appointment,” reported Austin’s KVUE in August. And the Dallas Morning News really cut to the chase in September: “Renewing a driver’s license in Texas is more agonizing than a root canal.” Lending credence to the bad news, the Texanist, speaking anecdotally, can say that he has both magazine colleagues as well as a few personal acquaintances who have had similarly bumpy rides through the DPS bureaucracy. 

As of this writing, the longest wait to schedule an appointment is 123 days, for a commercial driver’s license in McKinney. And in Hurst, you’re looking at 103 days for an appointment for a new license. The wait times once you’ve arrived for an appointment vary greatly. The Texanist spied ones approaching the five-hour mark, but he also noticed numerous offices with zero wait times.

Before proceeding, a moment to clear up a common misnomer is in order: the place where one applies for a license is the DPS, not the DMV. Though many states do dispense driver’s licenses via a department of motor vehicles, Texas is not one of them. In fact, until fairly recently, we didn’t even have such a division. The Texas DMV was cleaved from the Texas Department of Transportation in 2009 and is responsible for vehicle registration and titling, among many other things, but not driver’s licenses. (If you find these names confusing, just wait until the Texanist tells you about the Railroad Commission, which has nothing whatsoever to do with railroads.) Issuing driver’s licenses is just one small part of what the Department of Public Safety does—it’s a huge agency with more than 10,000 employees and an annual budget approaching $2 billion. Of course, the DPS also oversees statewide law enforcement, including but not limited to Highway Patrol, the Texas Rangers, counterterrorism, crime labs, and, of late, border security.

DPS has argued that the problem stems from underfunding, understaffing, and too many new Texans (about a half a million of whom moved to our great state last year alone). And though the department has received somewhere in the neighborhood of a half a billion dollars for driver’s license services over the last decade or so, the dysfunction hasn’t gone away. 

At a Texas Senate Committee on Finance hearing in January 2019, then–state senator John Whitmire, who is now the mayor of Houston, admonished DPS head Steve McCraw to “fix the damn thing.” He added, “We’re not getting better, we’re getting worse.” And then in February of last year, at another finance committee hearing with McCraw in the hot seat, the agency chief did admit that the DPS had, perhaps, “been optimistic and sometimes overly optimistic that with less we can do more,” a statement to which Senator Angela Paxton rebutted, “Instead of being able to do more with less, it almost looks like we’ve been able to do less with more.”

DPS press secretary Ericka Miller told the Texanist that the department also “faces challenges finding qualified applicants to fill open positions at driver license offices across the state.” Miller pinpointed this as a major reason for the long wait times. She also said that folks are misusing the online appointment-scheduling system. “People not showing up for their appointments having not cancelled them continues to be a major obstacle,” Miller wrote in an email. “The current no-show rate is 30 percent. This negatively impacts our ability to offer those appointments to customers who are available to take them.” 

All of that said, while the system is in obvious need of repair, it is—for now, at least—the only option Texans have. We’re stuck with it. But the Texanist, a man known for the well-timed deployment of old sayings, would rather light a candle than curse the darkness. And as he sees it, the best way to navigate the potential pitfalls that come with doing business with the DPS—namely the long wait times—is to simply mind what he calls the three p’s. 

First, be proactive. In the case of a license renewal, all the information you need is right there on your permit. Be mindful of your expiration date. The DPS sends out reminders six months prior, but in most cases, a license can be renewed up to two years before that date arrives, which seems to the Texanist like plenty of time to make arrangements for a replacement. For young drivers who are about to hit their eligibility age, that too shouldn’t be a date that sneaks up on you. And for would-be transplants, know that you’re going to need new Texas credentials once you’ve arrived. Once you know what you’re after, take a moment to study the DPS website for guidance. As was the case with the Texanist, you may be delighted to learn that you don’t need an in-office visit at all. So, don’t burden yourself or the system unnecessarily. 

Persistence is also sometimes required. If you do need an appointment, take advantage of both the online appointment scheduler as well as the website’s helpful wait-time monitor, which allows a potential appointment maker to get an idea of wait times for appointments at the various offices across the state, as well as to see how long one might wait in person after arriving on the big day. Figure out the best fit for you.

And then be polite. The Texanist shouldn’t have to say this, but making an appointment and then not canceling an appointment that you can’t keep is inconsiderate to fellow Texans. If your schedule is unpredictable and you can’t commit to a time, know that most offices offer a few first come, first served walk-in appointments each day. And many also offer a standby wait for appointments. So, if you’re the gambling sort, these are options.

Lastly, the Texanist would also suggest not sleeping on the DPS’s smaller, sometimes off-the-beaten-path offices. From Anson to Ozona, there are 58 single-workstation offices scattered across the state, each manned by only one or two employees. Some of these keep odd hours and may not be open five days a week, but still, they can be solid options. Indeed, for the last 25 years or so, the Texanist has conducted all his in-person DPS business at one of these small offices. He’s a fan of the one located within the Capitol Complex in Austin and has never been dissatisfied. He’s also pointed a number of folks in the direction of that office over the years and has never heard anything even resembling a complaint.

The Texanist poked his head into the Capitol Complex office very recently and counted up a grand total of two young women, neither one with an appointment, happily waiting to take care of their business. In summary, the best way to maintain your sanity when dealing with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s driver’s license office is by avoiding its many proverbial potholes, which is, despite what you’ve read, not impossible. 

Happy trails!