‘No Smile’ License Policy Has New Jersey Drivers Frowning

By BILL ERVOLINO, The Record | August 7, 2015

Smile and the world smiles with you – unless you’re having your driver’s license renewed.

It’s been three years since New Jersey instituted its “no smiling” policy for driver’s license photos – a measure designed to make life easier for facial recognition computer software.

But The Record reports plenty of northern New Jersey residents, unaware of the change, say they were confused when they went in for their new photos and discovered that saying “Cheese!” was no longer an option.

They weren’t exactly happy about it, either.

“A few months ago, it took me four tries to get a photo they liked at the DMV in Oakland,” reports Susan Fraysse Russ, of Westwood, referring to the Motor Vehicle Commission office on Ramapo Valley Road. “For the first one, I was smiling and the clerk said, ‘You can’t smile!’ The second time, I thought I wasn’t smiling but she said I was still smiling.

“For the third one,” Russ adds, “I tried tilting my head a little so it didn’t look like a full-on mug shot, but she said, ‘You can’t do that, either. Just look straight into the camera. And don’t smile!'”

The “neutral expression” policy was instituted here in 2012 – it’s also required in Arkansas, Indiana, Nevada and Virginia – but Russ says she was unaware of the change until she went in to renew her license this year. Ditto for Eileen Delehanty-Perri, who recently moved from Carlstadt to Oakland.

“In early July, I went in to the Oakland office,” Delehanty-Perri recalls, “and they had this sign with two pictures of a man. In one picture he’s smiling, and that one has an X through it. In the next picture, he’s not smiling and that one has a check mark. So, I tried not to smile but everyone around me was laughing. I wound up taking one with a little smile – I have some teeth showing. It actually came out cute.”

Maureen Oprandy, of Wallington, who took her new license photo last month, had no such luck. “I look like someone on death row,” she groans. And Lisa Cohn, of Wayne, was similarly disappointed: “Mine looks like I’m snarling.”

For these women, the policy change may be the worst thing to happen to Garden State drivers since 2008, when a GMAC Insurance survey declared that – smiling or not – we were the worst drivers in the United States.

Kansas drivers did best in the survey, while Jerseyans came in 51st – after Kansas. And the District of Columbia. And the 48 other states you might be in, when you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Were we offended? Certainly. Which makes being told not to smile for the photos that many of us routinely use for identification purposes seem like an additional, unnecessary hardship.

As Russ notes, “I work for a media company in Manhattan and have to travel to different offices all day long – Time Inc., Bloomberg, Condé Nast – and everyone asks to see my ID. On my last license, I had such a nice photo. I was smiling and, coincidentally, I had just gotten one of those free hair and makeup makeovers. But this new photo, which I have to show to every security guard in Manhattan, is terrible. I’m a nice person! I’m an organ donor! Why can’t I smile?”

Sandi Wesner of Franklin Lakes also preferred her previous – and far more flattering – picture.

“For the most part,” she says, “I am always smiling. I smiled for my previous license photo and it was fine. This last time, I was warned a few times, which made me smile even more. And listening to others complaining about it next to me made it even funnier.”

The MVC employee, she said, “was very stoic and didn’t see any humor in the situation. Eventually, I got serious and ‘Click!’ she took the picture. She then asked me if I would like another one taken. I told her no and left with my mug-shot portrait. And no one is going to see it, unless they’re arresting me.”

Eileen Gruber of Mahwah misses her last license photo, too. “My old photo was so cute. This one is horrid. Not only am I not smiling, but it’s a super close-up, too!”

Gruber experienced similar woes recently when she and her family took new passport photos.

“We went to CVS for the new photos and they came out great,” she says, “but at the post office where we were doing the passport application they said the photos were unacceptable because we were smiling. So, back to CVS for mug shots!”

The reasons for the “neutral expression” rule, according to Mairin Bellack, the deputy director of communications for the MVC, “is three words: security, security, security. Each technician has been trained to know when an image is acceptable and when it isn’t. And people need to keep in mind that facial recognition technology helps protect them from identity fraud.”

The MVC also works with law enforcement on various other types of criminal cases that rely on facial recognition software. “This is why the integrity of every photo is so important,” Bellack notes. “So, would you rather protect your identity or have a cute smile on your license?”

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