Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: incompetent, or malignant?

I had assumed that my own experience was somewhat anomalous.  After all, how many college students don't have driver's licenses, and got busted for underaged drinking?  We are a small, but elite, fraternity.

But it seems that this has happened to PennDOT at least once before (some identifying details removed):

The EXACT same thing happened to me.  I too was cited for underage drinking in 1992 (I had an out-of-state drivers license at the time).  Life went on until the DC DMV linked into a national data network in 1997.  When I went to renew my DC license after that date, I was told that PA had placed a flag on my record and that I could not renew.  The nice people at the Penn DOT told me that I never signed a form acknowledging my license suspension and that I would have to sign it and begin to serve the suspension.  They were insanely inflexible.   I ended up tracking down the District Magistrate in the town where I got the citation and she was kind enough to have mercy on me.  She retroactively changed my violation from underage drinking to disorderly conduct.  As a result, I could avoid the license suspension.  Sadly, the DC DMV never could properly clear the flag in their system (the also charged me $100 to "reinstate" my license).  Every time I had to interact with them after that, I had to explain the situation all over again.  Not sure what I would have done if the Magistrate didn't help me.  I don't think I have ever been as mad as I was when talking with Penn DOT.

Once is a fluke, twice a coincidence . . . but what are the odds that the only other person this has happened to just happens to read my blog?  I suspect that PennDOT is well aware that this is a problem with their system.  On the other hand, why should they fix it?  It almost certainly happens mostly to out-of-state residents at this point.  It's not like those people have any juice to get them fired, and their business is hardly going to be outsourced to Taiwan.

Though I'm against underaged drinking laws as a matter of principle, I do think that Pennsylvania would have been perfectly within its legal rights to suspend my license when I was 19, if I had had one.  I don't, however, concede that if, at the age of 19, one does not have a license they can suspend, that they get a sort of "IOU" which gives them the right to suspend one's license at any arbitrary point in the future.  Nor do I understand what purpose this serves, other than spite.   I mean, one could hardly call it a deterrent--I'm no longer eligible to reoffend, and for most 19 year olds, their 35th birthday is about as emotionally real as Santa Claus.

Would it help if I apologized for not having learned to drive until I was 23?

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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