Why you can't smile for your N.J. driver's license

A smiling Velvet S. McNeil
A smiling Velvet S. McNeil
Posted: September 21, 2012

TO VELVET S. McNeil, a photograph of yourself carries a lot of weight.

It's a statement of your personality. It's how people will remember you when you're not around. It's your official image, your introduction to strangers, even, should you get kidnapped and the cops send your picture to all the newspapers and TV stations.

So she smiles when she's photographed.

"Your picture means a lot; it's who you are," said McNeil, 38, of Sicklerville, N.J.

So, when the manager of the Motor Vehicle Commission office in Cherry Hill told her Tuesday that she wasn't allowed to smile for her driver's-license picture, she balked - and left, saying that the office's staff couldn't adequately explain the smile ban.

"Why should we all look like androids, looking mopey? I know there are some people who don't have good driver's licenses, but I actually keep all mine," said McNeil, whose pleasantly smiling image adorns old licenses from the six states in which she's lived, as well as her debit and credit cards.

Turns out, the state really does prefer that its six million drivers scowl rather than smile for the camera.

Cue the New Jersey jokes.

In January, New Jersey launched new face-recognition software that forbids license applicants from smiling widely or making other exaggerated facial expressions that might confuse the computer.

The goal is to catch fraudsters. If a new photo, for example, matches an old one that carries a different name, a red flag goes up, and investigators step in.

"That could be someone trying to steal someone else's identity to get insurance benefits, or someone trying to get out of a DUI by getting a license under another name," said Mike Horan, spokesman for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. "This helps us weed out fraud."

If facial expressions vary greatly in photos of the same person, the software could incorrectly signal a problem, Horan said.

Slight smiles are OK. "Hey-I-won-the-lottery-type smiles" are not, Horan said. "To get an accurate photo, you don't want an excessively expressive face in the photo."

Pennsylvania and Delaware use the software, too. But "smile/no-smile is not a problem," said Jan McKnight, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokeswoman. "You can smile in Pennsylvania."

Most states use the face-recognition technology - and some even require fingerprints, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

McNeil said that she will renew her license, now that she knows about the policy. Still, she refuses to sulk for the photo.

"Just no cheesy grins, right? That's fine," said McNeil, media-arts director for YesPhilly, a nonprofit that helps dropouts earn GEDs and plan their futures. "I need a license, so I will definitely have to go back. I have to do what the law requires."

McNeil’s protest about driver’s license photo rules isn’t unprecedented. Consider the case of Austrian atheist Niko Alm. Irked about European Union regulations on driver’s license photos – including a ban on head coverings except for religious reasons – Alm insisted he be allowed to wear a pasta strainer on his head because he was a “Pastafarian” and belonged to the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” The strainer, he argued, was required headgear. He later received the license, bearing a photo of him somberly wearing a plastic strainer on his head, in the mail.

But New Jersey's masses apparently aren't rioting for the right to smile in their license photos.

"People recognize, especially in New Jersey, that it's important to make sure our licenses are as secure as possible," said Cathleen Lewis, a AAA-New Jersey spokeswoman. "But it is important for there to be an education process, so people won't be confused about why they can't smile."

Horan said that the $4.1 million technology is just one of many security measures that the commission has undertaken since the days when a clerk with a Polaroid camera snapped pictures and laminated them onto licenses. In 2004, they switched to digital photography. In May 2011, they implemented other security measures that "I can't talk about," Horan said. "That's for us in law enforcement to know."

Licenses soon will be easier to renew in New Jersey, Horan said. A "skip the trip" program in which drivers born before December 1964 can renew by mail launches in November. Sometime after, drivers will be able to renew online, Horan added.


Contact Dana DiFilippo at difilid@phillynews.com or 215-854-5934.

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