Caught in the Cogs of a Bureaucratic Machine: NMA E-Newsletter #515

Since early August, the Virginia Department of Motor vehicles continued to badger one of our Virginia members, Mike, about needing proof of insurance for a vehicle that only had, per agency records, 16 characters in its Vehicle Identification Number. Since VINs have exactly 17 characters, the DMV was asking for proof of a vehicle that could not exist!

Some seventeen years ago, when Mike’s late wife Linda bought a used Lincoln, a DMV clerk apparently omitted a single letter from the standard string of VIN characters. No matter. The problem became Mike’s to resolve.

Mike immediately responded to the first of three DMV “nasty grams” with proof of insurance and other documents that each showed the correct VIN. He included comments that explained the obvious error. No response.

The second threatening letter from the DMV came a month later. Same demand but with an escalation of threats by mentioning large fines and fees to restore his vehicle registration. Again Mike sent the required forms and supporting information. Again crickets!

The third, nastier threat came in early October with an Order of Suspension if Mike didn’t respond by November 2nd. Some excerpts:

“Please submit the VA title and a Registration-VIN-Business Change Application (Form VSA71) along with 2 or more of the following as proof of the correct VIN:

  1. Pencil tracing of VIN
  2. State inspection showing VIN
  3. Maintenance record from licensed mechanic that lists the VIN
  4. Bill of sale
  5. Odometer statement

The documents will be reviewed in the DMV Customer Service Center. Once the VIN is verified, the record will be updated and a new title will be issued. When the review is completed, if it is determined that a DMV error occurred, the title will be issued at no fee. If the CSC determines that no DMV error occurred, there will be a $15.00 fee charged for the new title.”

“For each vehicle listed above, if the vehicle was not insured on 08/24/18, pay the DMV the $500 statutory fee and have your insurance company file form SR22 “Certificate of Insurance” with DMV. . .”

“If you fail to respond and this suspension becomes effective, you must comply with the requirements of this order and pay a $145 reinstatement fee before your privilege to operate motor vehicles and register vehicles can be reinstated. Virginia law requires payment of a $5 fee for each additional suspension or revocation order in effect.”

Mike refused to pay any DMV fees, including the $145 to have the state police come out and verify the VIN on the vehicle. Instead he got his local Chase City police chief to do the inspection and verification ─ for free!

After still not getting an acknowledgement to the forms he sent in twice, two visits to the regional DMV office in South Hill (a forty mile round trip) followed. Mike was ultimately told that he’d have to go to Richmond, the state capital, to submit information in person. He found a sympathetic clerk at another DMV office who instantly saw the problem, made a quick call to Richmond and printed out a new, corrected vehicle title in about 15 minutes.

As Mike, an 80 year old whose driving independence is critical to him, noted, “Criminalizing paperwork mistakes, even when made by the DMV, makes your car into a lawn ornament. You lose your livelihood. Lacking public transportation, many old people simply give up the ghost. And government couldn’t care less! Such administrative errors could be handled in a respectful, friendly manner instead of treating the public as crooks, especially as those errors have nothing to do with highway safety!”

Hoping to force reform, Mike decided to write letters to the editors of a few different local papers, describing the frustration of trying to correct a problem not of his making with the DMV. Interestingly, it was one of those letters, not the forms filed with the DMV in triplicate, that caught the attention of Virginia DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb who then issued a direct letter of apology to Mike and waived all fees in his case.

Through much aggravation and personal expense, Mike followed the DMV procedure to resolve a mistake, even though it wasn’t his. In the end, he exposed the problem much like a consumer protection reporter might do, and forced an executive response. Without taking the initiative that he did, Mike might still be fighting for justice, and begging friends for rides since the registration of his car would have been invalidated.

The remaining question is whether the DMV will take corrective action so that other vehicle owners won’t be subjected to the same recalcitrant bureaucratic process to solve a simple and obvious error. We aren’t taking bets.

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