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Minors' IDs getting major new look

Utah will join 16 other states across the country in May when it moves to a vertical or "portrait" style format in drivers' licenses for motorists younger than 21.

The change, as a result of legislation passed during the 2003 general session, is an attempt to make it easier for alcohol and tobacco vendors to more easily detect young adults or teenagers trying to illegally partake.

Vendors applaud the move.

"We appreciate anything that can be done to make the identification more distinctive," said Kyle Robbins, a veteran doorman at Port O' Call, one of the busiest and most popular private clubs in downtown Salt Lake City.

Robbins, who has worked the door for 14 years, said the club confiscates between 50 and 100 drivers' licenses that are being used by young adults to gain illegal entry.

"We've always taken the ID issue very seriously."

Although drivers' licenses currently flag minors with a red date-of-birth and a notation indicating what date they will reach 21 for alcohol sales or 19 for tobacco sales, the distinctions can be hard to spot in dimly lit places by employees under pressure.

In Michigan, a 2002 study by the state's liquor control commission found 30 percent of store clerks or waiters made a sale to underage drinkers — even after three quarters of them had checked drivers' licenses.

"It can be carelessness, confusion or an inability to quickly figure out a person's age using the date on the drivers' licenses," said Earl Dorius, compliance manager with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The color distinctions, too, fail to consider the percentage of the population with color blindness.

"If you compound that with a dimly lit bar or nightclub, or even a restaurant, it makes it that much harder," Dorius said.

After investigating what other states had done, Dorius said the department reached out to vendors in Utah to get their reaction to the change.

"We started contacting our licensees, and without exception they said they needed a better way."

Arizona became the 13th state in the country two years ago when it moved to a portrait-style license for motorists younger than 21 as part of a major makeover of its drivers' licenses.

Cydney DeModica, media relations director for the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division, said the immediate response from retailers was positive.

"They put their license at risk if they sell to underage drinkers, so they appreciated the change."

Not so happy were the underage would-be imbibers, she added.

"We also heard from teenagers when they would receive their licenses who were not thrilled. Their comment to driver educators was: Why did we have to make it so different?"

Dorius said the landscape or portrait-style licenses are a growing trend that first cropped up about five years ago. Five other states are also considering the move.

Initial startup costs for the programming change are estimated to be $61,000 — an increase funded by new markups in the cost of liquor in Utah.

That extra money will be funneled to a digital photo vendor who contracts with the state to produce Utah drivers' licenses and identification cards, said Judy Hamaker-Mann, Utah's driver's license director.

The change, being implemented in legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Whip John Valentine, R-Orem, will become effective May 5.

Valentine said the new license for young motorists is in tandem with goals incorporated in the sweeping liquor law changes passed during the last session.

"We realized we needed to be more hospitable. We realized we needed to control underage drinking and overconsumption. What we were trying to do is balance all those concerns."