The History of the New York State DMV

The year was 1959, and New Yorkers were being asked to make a change in the State’s Constitution. An amendment had been proposed to deal with one of the biggest phenomenon of the 1950’s – the explosive growth of the automobile. New Yorkers agreed a change was needed and voted to approve the creation of a separate Department of Motor Vehicles.

Two years later (1961), the new Department of Motor Vehicles was in place, completing a process that began as far back as 1901, when automobiles were first registered by the Secretary of State. Back then, there were probably fewer than 1,000 drivers for the 954 registered vehicles statewide. By 1921, however, there were more than a million drivers and a million vehicles. To handle this increase, the functions of regulating motor vehicles were transferred to the State Tax Commission, which later became the Department of Taxation and Finance. In addition, to expand customer service, county clerks were authorized to open local motor vehicle offices.

By 1959, New York State had almost 7 million drivers and over 5 million registered vehicles, and more than 2,200 traffic deaths. (In another 30 years, 1986, there would be nearly twice as many motorists – almost 10 million licensed drivers and over 10 million registered vehicles – but fewer than 2,100 deaths, thanks to New York’s many highway safety initiatives.) Traffic safety had become an important public concern. As a result, the state legislature proposed to amend the state constitution to create a department of motor vehicles.

Urging passage of the proposed amendment, the Albany Times Union said on November 5, 1959: “The automobile and the truck have become one of the chief supports of our economy and one of the biggest problems, because of safety of our society...[the] creation of the department will result in better administration of the state’s safety program and probably reduction of the appalling motor vehicle accident death rate.”

Similarly supported statewide, the measure won public approval by almost one million votes – the victory margin more than two to one. (In favor: 1,869,500; Against: 911,609. Source: New York Times, December 15, 1959.).

On January 3, 1961, at the official opening of the new DMV Albany Central Office the late Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller told the new department’s employees: “…not only is the responsibility in your hands for the handling of the mechanics of licenses and registrations and the problems connected with this phase of your work, you also have the higher responsibility of trying to promote the safety and well-being of the people of this great state and those who visit our state on the highways.”

Prior to the official opening of the DMV Albany Central Office on January 3, 1961, we were known as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (1924-1960). Since 1961, we have made significant improvements to the services we provide and have grown into a multi-faceted agency. The number of customers we serve annually has increased dramatically since the 1960’s. For example, in 1961 there were almost 7 million licensed drivers in New York State (compared to the 11.3 million in 2007 – a 62% increase) and there were 5 million registered vehicles (compared to the 10.6 million in 2007 – an increase of 113%). Also, based on total transactions in 2007, we served nearly 28 million customers of whom 2 million were served via the Internet. And, while those numbers increased dramatically since 1961, the DMV workforce did not. In 1961, there were 2,800 employees compared to the 3,100 in 2007 – a mere 11% increase when compared to the increased percentage of customers. It’s apparent that the DMV of today is not the DMV of yesterday. In order to keep up with the ever-increasing number of customers and their expectations and demands, we continually seek innovative techniques to enhance our products and services we provide.