State unveiling new driver's license

First change in a decade includes high-tech aspects to thwart tampering

March 25, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

State officials will unveil today a new high-tech, virtually tamper-proof driver's license designed to thwart underage drinkers and keep law enforcement one step ahead of the counterfeiting industry.

It is the first change in the license's appearance in a decade, and officials say it's less a redesign than a complete overhaul. The new license - three years and $40 million in the making - looks like a credit card, but the text is embedded, not raised. The license is covered with multicolor holograms and features Maryland's signature crustacean, the blue crab.

"We're trying to keep up with the crooks," said Anne S. Ferro, head of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration. With this license, she said, the state has them beat.

The state began issuing the new license to some drivers last month at the MVA office in Waldorf. Statewide distribution will begin early next month, with Frederick and Westminster first in line. By the end of June, every MVA office will be converted.

Officials began planning for the new license three years ago - before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001- but they say the nation's heightened security status makes the license all the more necessary. The license has been vetted with law enforcement and airport security.

For drivers, a noticeable change is the added color. Licenses will come in three colors - blue for most motorists, green for commercial drivers, purple for moped users. Identification cards will be red, while temporary licenses will have a black border.

A bigger change is in store for drivers younger than 21. For years, their licenses have featured profile photos. Now they will have full-face photos, but their licenses will be vertical instead of horizontal.

"My kids look very similar in profile," Ferro said. "You don't get the distinguishing characteristics you do with a full face."

For added security, three elements will partially overlay the driver's photo: an image of the state seal, the driver's signature and a control number. A faint "ghost" image of the photo will be in a corner of the license, with the driver's birth date superimposed.

Most importantly, the license will be printed like a credit card so it is virtually impossible to tamper with. As a security feature, all licenses will include some lettering in microprint so small it can be read only with a magnifier. Licenses will still be laminated for durability.

"Most other states employ a paper license in a pouch," said John Kuo, MVA director of operations. "Those are very easily opened and altered."

In creating a credit card-like license with a smooth surface, Maryland is making it easier for doormen at bars and clubs to determine if a license is fake or real. "If you feel a raised surface, you know it's a fake right away," said MVA spokeswoman Cheron V. Wicker.

She said that those who try to alter the license will destroy it beyond recognition. The images and data on the license are embedded through the card - like a tattoo on a person's skin - and tampering with them will ruin the license.

Another change: The back of the license will feature a two-dimensional bar code that looks like a fuzzy television screen. The magnetic stripes used now are too easily erased or scratched, officials say, and the data they contain can be accessed by anyone with a magnetic reader.

The $40 million cost of the new license is for more than just development. Also included are the hardware and software needed to produce the licenses at the MVA's 24 locations across the state. The contract for providing those services was awarded three years ago to Compaq, now a division of Hewlett Packard.

The process of obtaining a driver's license also is changing. Drivers will have their photo taken first - before completing any applications - to ensure that the person who takes the tests is the person whose photo appears on the license.

And the MVA is introducing one-stop shopping, so the process - from document checks to vision testing - can be done at a single counter. Applicants will use touch-screen computers instead of paper forms. The computers will connect with online databases to verify Social Security numbers, addresses and other information.

"We'll make sure we don't give licenses to people from out-of-state who have suspended licenses elsewhere," Kuo said. He said few states in the country have such sophisticated systems. "Certainly, we're among the leaders," he said.

For those renewing or replacing their license, the computer will pull up all their old photos. That means MVA employees can tell immediately if someone is trying to get a license in another person's name.

That change is designed to prevent the crime spree that Dontay Carter engaged in more than a decade ago. The teen-ager easily obtained a replacement license in the name of a Catonsville man he had killed. With the license, he was able to elude police for days and use his victim's credit cards.

"We'll be able to confirm you are who you say you are," Wicker said.

Motorists who have been issued the new licenses in Waldorf like them, officials said. Ferro, the MVA administrator, said the licenses have a sense of whimsy that appeals to people. There's the crab, of course, and also a heart to indicate organ donors.

But the security features, she said, are what make the license stand out. "You're always trying to stay ahead of the theft-and-fraud industry. Will they catch up with us at some point? Probably. But we'll be ready to rebid [the contract] by that point."

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