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Yukon driver's licence causes social embarrassment

When I am out of the Yukon, I am always shame-faced when I have to show my driver's licence. Not, not just because of the unsightly photograph on it -- though that is embarrassing enough.

When I am out of the Yukon, I am always shame-faced when I have to show my driver’s licence.

Not, not just because of the unsightly photograph on it—though that is embarrassing enough.

(In the photo on the licence that expired this year, taken when I still wore my hair long, I look like a merrily doped-up hippy; in the new one, five years older and more conventionally coiffured, I now look like the guy who sold that hippy all that dope.)

What really causes me embarrassment, though, is not my self-incriminating mug, but the fact that my driver’s licence looks like a student card issued by a college in the 1970s.

In fact, it looks almost exactly like the student card I got a UBC in 1972, and for a good reason: It is the product of exactly the same technology—a funky, old Polaroid camera and a heat-press device to plastic-wrap the card.

I was, in fact, startled when the polite young woman assisting me pointed to the photo-taking corner of the office.

I found myself looking into the business end of the Polaroid ID-4 camera that has been making me look silly for probably 20 years, now.

This stuck me as particularly odd, since I knew that Polaroid is not really in the camera business at all, anymore.

Also, I knew that the Polaroid company has twice filed for bankruptcy protection—once in 2001, and again at the end of 2008.

Furthermore, I also knew it has announced that it will cease making any more instant-developing film by the end of this year.

When I got home, I did a quick search on the internet for the details on the Polaroid ID-4 machine.

I found a web page (at giving the details of this machine, and advising consumers that the system has been discontinued

They suggested that their customers should “upgrade to a complete digital photo id system.”

Which is, of course, precisely what should have been done by our local government many years ago.

Though I have nothing but praise for the helpfulness and professionalism of the staff at the Motor Vehicles branch, I cannot extend the same praise for the way the branch is managed.

It is, in some ways, kind of a cool that we live in a part of the country where the production of personal identification papers is handled so casually.

It speaks well of our overall people-friendliness.

On the other hand, the driver’s licences function as the primary form of personal identification all over North America.

It is a disservice to Yukoners, then, to be issuing driver’s licences that create either giggles or incredulity anywhere outside our borders.

There is nothing particularly new about this situation, of course.

Back in the early ‘70s—at the very time, in fact, that UBC was issuing me what was then my very high-tech photo ID card produced by a Polaroid ID-4—the Yukon driver’s licence consisted of a folding piece of cardboard with no photo at all, and with the identification information manually entered with a typewriter.

I remember the difficulty one of my buddies had when we got pulled over by the police in Vancouver one night.

We were not in any serious trouble—just a broken tail light—but we were held up for the better part of half an hour while the cop talked with headquarters, trying to find out if that oddball, blue piece of cardboard really was a Yukon driver’s licence, and not a just a silly joke.

We got past that problem in the later ‘70s with the deployment of those new card-making machines—but then, unfortunately, we got frozen in time, again.

Even “emerging economy” countries have outstripped the Yukon in this business.

In Brazil, for instance, driver’s licences are taken very seriously.

They contain a number of security features, and are printed on a special, restricted brand of paper to make them difficult to forge.

Our licences, in contrast, are wide open to forgery by anyone with a decent scanner, a copy of Photoshop, and a plasticator.

Furthermore, the physical security around the way we issue licences is mind-bogglingly lax.

When I showed up to renew my licence, I needed to do only two things to prove I was in fact Rick Steele: Show the young woman at the counter my old licence, and provide her with my mother’s maiden name.

It would have been dead easy for me, if I were interested in identity theft, to defeat both those “checks.”

All I would need to do would be to fake up an expiring licence, and do a little historical records work to find out the name of the woman who married Frank Steele in 1939.

In the digital age, both those things are quick and easy to accomplish.

So, the Polaroid people are unwittingly doing the Yukon public a service by finally throwing in the towel on the ID-4 machines and the film stock that goes with them.

I can’t expect the people at Motor Vehicles branch to do anything to improve the look of the face in the picture, but they desperately need to do something about the look and credibility of the licence it adorns.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.