Get rid of the smiles on driver’s license photo

I hadn’t listened to National Public Radio (NPR) in forever. But when I found myself alone, unsupervised in my car for a long stretch of time recently, my fingers instinctively reached over and tuned in 104.1 out of Ann Arbor.

Fortunately, it was at a good time to listen, unlike when Terri Gross, that vastly untalented host of Fresh Air, is pathetically trying to interview a guest. Talk about lame. She is so out-smarted and out-classed by her guests that she sounds like some school girl interviewing a worldly celebrity on whom she has a crush. NPR must be in desperate need of radio talent for Gross to have emerged as top interviewer. I feel embarrassed for her. Milquetoast to the max!!

But when I tuned in, they were running one of their short, between-segment, quirky blurbs that occurred in another country. For those who don’t listen to NPR regularly, international news tends to be of the National Enquirer variety, culturally interesting only because it features Jerry Springer-like snippets that revolve around foreigners.

On this particular day, they were interviewing a 33-year-old man, whose name I did not catch, and isn’t especially important to the context. But it will suffice to say he was a Brazilian who had been at his country’s equivalent of Michigan’s Secretary of State (SOS) office, attempting to renew his driver’s license, when he was admonished for smiling while they were photographing him for the picture on it.

 After several re-takes for photobombing his own likeness with a smile, the department of motor vehicles (DMV) person asked why he kept smiling despite being told NOT to smile. The man responded that his father was a dentist and had always told him a smile was a person’s most prized possession, so it should always be present (or something to that effect).

This did not amuse the DMV person, who replied that the man needed to stop smiling while his picture was taken because it was against the rules to smile for a DMV license.

“Where does it say that?!” demanded the man. He was informed those rules were contained in internal departmental documents, but all that the man really needed to know was that he was in violation of those mysterious rules.

Hmm. A long time went by and the man continued to challenge the issue. He made a scene by demanding he be shown exactly where it stated one was not to smile for a driver’s license photo. Turns out, as you have probably already guessed, that it doesn’t say that anywhere. Smiling victory!!

 Unfortunately, as it turns out, this incident was not specific to South America. It’s also been happening in recent years among states within North America. In 2016, the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles began telling driver’s license applicants not to smile when their photos were snapped. Why? The facial recognition software used in the new, highly-digitalized identification process did not do as well when faced with smiling faces. No kidding.

Color turned out to be another barrier, so the photos on the licenses reverted to more old-fashioned grayscale likenesses of the drivers pictured. People were also asked to remove their eyeglasses prior to being photographed. While technologically helpful, these changes were not well-received by driver’s license applicants.

According to Colorado DMV employee Lynn Granger, new cameras take a photo that enhances specific features on each person’s face. With encrypted information on each license, it makes it nearly impossible to copy. But an unobstructed view is needed, so glasses must be taken off and a serious expression presented before the camera.

“I had to take my glasses off and then when I smiled, he asked me not to smile, and that again is to enhance those facial features as they’re laser engraved in grayscale on the document,” Granger said.

Laser, smaser! Nobody wants an old-style-looking, glasses-less driver’s license that doesn’t even look remotely like them. Screw security! Cheesy as it sounds, consider my son, who is both in line to get braces and to get his official picture driver’s license this fall. I fully expect him to be smiling his fool head off in front of that SOS camera! Just say cheese.


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