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AFTERBURN REPORT 2004

Department of Mutant Vehicles

The 2003 event pushed all of Burning Man to look more carefully at the issue of driving on the playa. Operations of the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) clearly needed to develop to a new level to meet the changing needs of our city. Many felt unsafe to walk in Black Rock City due to blatant disregard of community standards by so many participants who insisted on driving their vehicles. DMV is one of the organization's first points of contact for individuals inclined to drive at the event, and we work to educate them. Beyond that role, the DMV issues driving permits for vehicles that are necessary and appropriate to drive within BRC. By November of 2003, the DMV was hard at work making needed changes for 2004.

Our mission was and still is to license and register art cars for permitted driving within Black Rock City. The DMV was conceived as a way to encourage artistic vehicles to color our vistas with roving beauty. As Burning Man has grown, the mission has necessarily changed. Early emphasis on judging art became a growing task, riddled with subjective fog, while the need to keep our city safe became a paramount concern. After 2003, we developed our mission to focus more on objective criteria for approval based on safety, community need, and visual stimulation. To this end, we began to clarify the criteria by which an art car would qualify for driving privileges in BRC.

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First we changed the name of vehicles issued driving privileges from art cars to mutant vehicles. This change eliminated the issue of whether a perfectly valid art car in the default world would pass our unique criteria for safety and community need in BRC. We wanted to move the emphasis from a subjective notion of what is art toward the arrangement that best serves the community. Next, we developed clearer criteria for inspection. Lastly, we asked for a new level of demonstrated commitment to the community good by instituting a pre-event registration process. Those in the community who stayed current with our communications about coming changes were very accepting of the new standards. Those who did not read the newsletter, web site, Jack Rabbit Speaks email newsletter, or Survival Guide were at a loss. This common problem with change in our organization should diminish with each passing year.

In order to properly process all pre-event mutant vehicle applications, we needed to develop a robust database. In this process, we ran into snags. This database needed to serve multi-layered purposes: housing all information for pre-registration, collecting additional information generated by on-playa visual inspection, and providing a tracking tool for the Rangers and law enforcement officers when vehicles were caught violating community, local, state, or federal rules on the open playa. The Tech department used the DMV database as a test case for many to be created completely within a new software platform. This process took longer than expected, as the volunteers' communication of requirements slowed the process.

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The database, scheduled for implementation in the spring, finally reached completed in early June. The team was hopelessly behind in processing applications at that point. Communication between applicants and the DMV volunteer staff was sacrificed to meet the goal of pre-registering vehicles. This was an ugly choice to make, but it seemed the only true option other than asking the impossible of the already overtaxed staff.

While the database was in development, the governing council for the DMV did not sit by twiddling their thumbs. Along with all of the standard pre-event needs like welcoming new team members, maintaining email lists, conducting trainings and meetings, they focused on many other necessary tasks. The council rewrote all copy on the web site, followed a rigorous campaign for information dissemination (beginning at the town meeting in early December 2003) and re-educated all staff workers ('DMV Hotties') on the new criteria for approval and the coming on-site data entry process. Needless to say, 2004 was a very challenging year.

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The largest problem that slipped through the cracks was personal communication between applicants and the Hotties. This loss sacrificed opportunities to talk about the criteria and shortcomings of individual vehicles in the pre-registration process, and no appeals process was anticipated for rejections. This oversight will be rectified in 2005 with a 'rolling admissions' process, were vehicles are reviewed when they apply, instead of after the submission deadline, providing time for communication and re-submission to correct problems.

Inconsistency in licensing was another subject for complaints. This issue will be addressed by tightening the criteria and better training all staff. The infrastructure of the team will be examined to make sure that the correct people are making the appropriate decisions in every case. We also plan to develop a 'fast-track' approval process for tried-and-true vehicles that do not need more than a cursory review. Lastly, for those who encountered problems getting vehicles admitted to the event, Gate processes will improve based on a year's experience.

Handicapped vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, and scooters will also be more closely examined. We must account for many special cases, and some policies that have proved ineffective in promoting the goal of creating a safer city need revision. Increasingly stringent criteria will govern vehicle use in these areas, but a clear, consistent policy will be made and communicated to avoid problems in 2005.

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The DMV achieved important milestones in 2004: using digital cameras instead of Polaroids, storing data in a live database, pre-approving vehicles, and revamping the mission and evaluation criteria for the department. The DMV's goals for 2005 are to capitalize on the success of 2004 to better educate and serve the community. We have articulated new goals to create humane workloads for the DMV hotties, develop an infrastructure that makes cooperation and success the norm, better articulate standards and criteria for permitting, and work toward a standard where all vehicles are reviewed on their individual merits.

Submitted by,
Harley DuBois End of page

Click here to read the 2003 DMV report.