Why New Jersey’s DMV smiling-ban won’t be hard to implement

This is commentary from political blogger and cartoonist Rob Tornoe. 

The New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles, often referred to as the happiest place in the Garden State, is turning those smiles upside-down with a new policy forcing motorists to simmer down in their drivers license photos, or else expensive face-recognition software won’t work.


When I showed the cartoon above to my editor here at Newsworks, he told me he thought it was funny that because of technology, New Jerseyans are frowning to make software happy.

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Technology is a confounding thing – making our lives easier while simultaneously making them miserable. Who hasn’t thrown their cell phone across the room in frustration or slammed their cable box when the image becomes pixilated and frozen? Facebook keeps us connected to friends and family in a way we couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago, but also makes us all depressed addicts envious of our friends’ happiness.

But not being able to smile to keep some computer happy? It sounds like something from a Phillip K. Dick novel – placating the needs of a cold, calculating machine so it doesn’t turn on us. I’m a huge Superman fan, but even as a kid I thought it was ridiculous that all it took to hide his secret identity was putting on a pair of glasses. Turns out, all he needed to do was crack a grin and no one would be the wiser.

Mike Horan, the cheery spokesman for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, told the The Philadelphia Inquirer, “To get an accurate photo, you don’t want an excessively expressive face in the photo.” 

I can’t wait to see the bureaucratic government nomenclature that covers what constitutes an excessively expressive smile. Can you smile, but show no teeth? Could Jim Carrey not qualify for a driver’s license? Does it also work in reverse – does being angry after waiting several hours to take a photo and excessively frowning screw with the software as well?

When I was in high school, I was allowed to keep my hat on for my driver’s license photo because, like an idiotic teenager, I had dyed my hair green. This resulted in numerous police officers convinced the license was fake. Will the same thing happen to motorists who happen to get a smile past the frowning drones at the DMV?

Luckily for the DMV, we don’t have much to smile about these days in the great Garden State. Unemployment ticked up to 9.9 percent last week, and the revenue numbers coming in to Trenton are far below what Governor Optimistic predicted they were going to be to justify his resume-padding tax cut. Plus, we still have record-high property taxes to contend with. Wall Street even downgraded the states’ credit outlook.

Interestingly, right across the river in Pennsylvania, they use the same exact facial recognition software, but according to Jan McKnight, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, “You can smile in Pennsylvania.” But then again, the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania is a full two points below New Jersey’s, and the state ranked 12th out of the 50 states in CNBC’s ranking of the top states to do business in, all reasons to smile if you’re a Pennsylvania motorist. Meanwhile, New Jersey ranked 30th.It’s no wonder sci-fi novelists always point to a future where mankind serves the robots, and not the other way around. We already search relentlessly for Wi-Fi hotspots, hold our cell phones in the air like the Statue of Liberty to get a better signal and gravitate towards electrical sockets like moths to a flame to keep our gadgets juiced up.

We’ve made holograms of dead performers so they can sing again on stage, yet we can’t build hardware that works properly without the need to turn them off and on again?

You can deny that you’re the slave of technology all you want, but let me ask a simple question to prove my point: Did you wait in line this weekend to purchase the new iPhone?

Case closed :(—–

Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at RobTornoe.com, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.

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