Question: I have a question about the legality of carrying a photo or digital copy of your driver’s license, instead of carrying the physical card. Will the police accept the digital copy as proof of a valid license, or would you get a citation? It would be convenient to have a copy in the phone.
Answer: You can’t use a digital copy of your driver’s license yet, but you’re anticipating the near future. Digital ID has been a topic of conversation in licensing agencies across the country for a few years now, and soon several states may offer that option. For now, Washington is not one of those states.
Iowa has been testing digital licenses with about 100 department of licensing employees, and the state hopes that the technology will be ready for full-scale adoption this year.
In another project, the U.S. Department of Commerce is partnering with Idaho, Maryland, Colorado and Washington, D.C., to launch a pilot for digital driver’s licenses.
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That’s the future of ID. In the present, the Revised Code of Washington requires drivers to have their license in their possession whenever operating a motor vehicle. A photo of your driver’s license on your smart phone is not a substitute for your actual driver’s license, but if you wanted a backup plan, it is a pretty good substitute for forgetting your wallet with your ID at home.
For some people, a smart phone is more like a recently implanted organ than a piece of technology (and not an optional organ like the appendix). If that’s you, and you want to take a picture of your license for that time when you inevitably forget your actual license, go for it.
But understand that a photo of a license does not meet the legal standard required in the RCW. It is not proof of a valid license; it’ll just let an officer know that you probably have a valid license at home.
I say “probably” because a driver’s license is a frequently faked item, and faking a photo of one is even easier than buying a fake ID from the internet.
I’m not suggesting that anyone reading this article would stoop to acquire a fake ID, but I was recently in a meeting with some bar owners in Bellingham, and one person at the meeting brought a stack of fake IDs about two inches tall, all confiscated from people trying to convince bar staff that they’re old enough to drink.
Digital ID needs to be even more secure than physical ID, because if digital ID can be compromised, it can be easily shared (and not the kind of sharing we learned about in kindergarten).
A photo of your driver’s license would also be incomplete. Take a look at the back of your driver’s license; those bar codes are an important part of your ID. Most law enforcement officers carry a scanner in their patrol cars that can read the bar codes and confirm the validity of a license.
On a side note, have you ever noticed that when you forget your license you pay more attention to your driving? Shouldn’t we be concerned about obeying traffic laws regardless of whether or not we have proper identification? I think we could reduce crashes just by always driving like we forgot our ID.
I expect that the future of driver identification will be digital, but first we will want to make sure that our digital ID is secure. Until then, keep your license with you and drive like you forgot it.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.