Renewing my car registration stresses me out. Every year, I get ready to do the right thing at the right time and, invariably, I’m caught off-guard. I’m always worried the date’ll pass me by and I’ll be stuck in the late registration renewal zone. I think of the late registration renewal zone as this dark, lonely place in the back of the DMV where huge penalties and revving tow trucks waiting to impound my car loom in the shadows as I and other late registration renewal victims cower in a miles long line leading to a counter where the sloth from Zootopia is the only clerk accepting payment. Just so you know, all of this DMV fear is my total paranoia with no basis in reality at all. I’m in touch with that, thank you very much, but I know I’m not alone in stressing this. And I’ve got to believe there’s a way never to be stuck in the late registration renewal zone ever again.
A purposeful — if painful — necessity
True, everyone knows going into buying or leasing a vehicle that part of your commitment to it is making sure you pay your renewal fee on time, thereby not getting stuck with the penalties that go along with being late. And although renewing vehicle registration may be just about one of the lowest priorities in our lives — replacing unused spices with fresh ones in your spice rack every six months rather than the between one year to never you normally do may very well be the only thing lower — it is still on you to do it and do it on time. And, sure, a car registration renewal notice gets mailed to you — through the actual post — to remind you.
BUT this is a once-a-year — sometimes every other year, if you live somewhere like Oregon or Missouri — sort of deal, so it’s not like it’s on your mind every month or something. And sometimes those renewal notices get lost in the mail, amidst other letters, or misplaced, ya know? And even though you probably drive your car daily or at the very least walk around it at some point during that day, you’re not looking at your license plate all the time, are you? No, you’re not. So, you could be forgiven for not remembering to renew your car registration on time, right?
As irritating as it is to be stuck with penalties and potential embarrassment by being pulled over in the middle of the street thanks to those expired tags on your license plate, that registration fee also supports infrastructure and other public works projects in our community. And that is why, friends and neighbors, there is no grace period for renewing your automobile and paying your fee late in most areas, and why some places are more strict than others on car registration renewal enforcement. In 2015, within California alone, 23 percent of registered drivers were late. That’s nearly ¼ of all registered cars and when you take into consideration that at least 95 percent of vehicles on Golden State highways are reg renewals, not first timers, that’s an astounding amount of lost state revenue.
The penalties for renewing your vehicle registration late and how some states and countries collect them have caused controversy in the past, however. When Illinois decided not to send out renewal notices to its citizens in 2015 to save the state money, it resulted in over $3.5 million of revenue collected in late fees. It also led to the Illinois house passing a bill prohibiting the Secretary of State from charging late registration fees in the future from those people who missed the due date because they never got a renewal notice. But vehicle registration is such a huge deal to states that some have actually figured out ways to use it to enforce other financial deficits.
Pennsylvania, which went stickerless at the beginning of 2017, is using vehicle registration to its advantage. Over $57 million in unpaid tolls have been building over the last three years, predominantly in three counties including Philadelphia. The state decided to go after 10,611 repeat offenders by suspending their vehicle registration. Pay the unpaid toll fees or lose use of your car.
I understand that vehicle registration fees support the growth and financial success of various communities, but the tales of woe over late registration renewal show that the real cost to residents is much more than a well-paved road.
Five hundred dollars later
It started as a spur of the moment, end-of-Friday, first-time-ever in Vegas trip with coworkers. “I was driving my car and my registration was expired. But it just wasn’t something I was taking too serious, because it wasn’t that late. Maybe a month or so,” Will says.
Will and his friends were cruising along The Strip when he noticed a policeman and his partner in their vehicle. Will made eye contact with the driver and kept moving… then saw the red and blue lights behind him, and was pulled over in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard. What was supposed to be a fun introduction to Sin City turned into an out of control traffic stop that kept getting worse.
“My grandpa who smoked cigars gave me this keychain and basically it was a bullet that’s hollowed out and you can use it to cut the end of cigars. They saw that and took that as some probable cause to search my car.”
The search revealed nothing, but led to their taking issue with one of Will’s passengers and suddenly, “They have their guns drawn on us, hands on the car and I kept thinking, ‘What did I do?’ So that was very intense and at the end of it, yeah, I got a ticket for my registration.”
A $500 ticket, to be exact. “And that was over 20 years ago. So, yeah, after that I pretty much don’t mess around with it.”
But it wasn’t the ticket that hurt the most in that situation. The reasons the vehicle registration was late were a couple of factors. 1) Renewing it wasn’t a priority. As Will says, “It was just one of those things I wasn’t taking very seriously at the time. I wasn’t paying attention.”
The second reason was that he was driving an older vehicle and couldn’t get it to pass the smog test. Will had countless repairs he needed to make on the car and he didn’t have the money for that or the registration fee. “I kept taking it in for the smog and it kept failing and then I’d have more work done and then I’d take it back and this whole cycle began, so,” he pauses, “And then I got that ticket in Vegas and it was just bad.” It got to the point that Will was at risk of losing his automobile altogether.
When life takes precedence
Kathryn had just moved into a new home and was still unpacking, going through papers, and getting her house in order. One day, she was driving with her young son and was pulled over, completely unaware that the tags on her license plate were four months late.
“I didn’t get the paperwork and didn’t realize, and I got pulled over with my little kid in the back and, ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ the whole bit. And got a big ticket. It was embarrassing to have to pay hundreds of dollars,” Kathryn remembers.
Part of the distress came from Kathryn’s not remembering her vehicle registration renewal fees were due let alone late. The move and adjusting to her new home with her young family were foremost on her mind, not the registration nor the fact she hadn’t gotten the renewal notice.
“Yeah, it was completely off my radar, because I always rely on the paperwork coming to trigger that.”
While that experience made her more vigilant, Kathryn has an additional and common consideration — financial priorities. After a recent health scare, she had to decide whether to tackle the bills that keep her family going or pay her registration renewal fee on time. Family won.
“My bills had backed up, so it was lower on the priority list,” Kathryn admits.
But Kathryn has three cars and she still counts on that paper registration renewal notice, which has either not shown up or come late more than once. With multiple vehicles, she can’t afford to accrue penalties. She’s acutely aware of how “lost paperwork” hurts her.
“I’ve got three cars, three opportunities to have paperwork lost, three opportunities a year for a $500 ticket.”
“You have learned by being burned,” is a phrase Bill recalls a friend once shared with him as he thinks back to a recent issue with late registration renewal.
As a husband and dad of driving age kids, Bill is responsible for up to five vehicle registrations at any given time. Juggling the renewal process is always a challenge, but the notices would routinely show up in the mail and, “As soon as I would get them, within a matter of weeks, I would pay them. The system had worked so well for so many years, I wasn’t very proactive about trying to know or keep in mind when the registration was due and not wait for the letter to come in the mail.”
That comfort led to Bill not realizing he hadn’t received the renewal notice until he was pulled over for late registration. What struck him the most when he paid was “the renewal fee that I was charged. I felt it was exorbitant relative to the amount of time that had passed.”
On a $70 registration renewal, Bill ended up having to pay $248, because it was two months late. “That experience made me very angry, because the fee charged was highly disproportionate to the offense.”
The whole situation got Bill thinking — the system he had gotten used to didn’t even really make sense. Sending a paper renewal notice during the digital age and one reminder at that?
“You get the registration renewal in the mail and if you don’t send it in to the DMV or do it online, then they just let the clock run and eventually somehow, some way, you get hit with a huge fine. I think it’s not fair.”
None of these stories are uncommon. Virtually every car owner has been here. If that’s not you, good on ya. But whether it was one day or two years, at some point in your auto owning or leasing life, chances are you ended up renewing your vehicle registration late and incurring fees. It doesn’t matter why, but that first time, you hope, is the last time.
But what if it’s not? And what if it could be changed so it never happens again? Sweet relief.
Burdened by late registration renewal
All over the world, you need to register your car to drive it. The rules change depending on where you are and renewing that registration ranges from not having to do it at all, to doing so only if you’ve moved, your vehicle was stolen or your license plate damaged, to needing to do it every year or so. But when it is required, a late registration renewal will get you penalized.
Here in California, I faced a rather unique situation. I wasn’t late, I was too early. I got my notice to renew, went onto the DMV website to pay and got an alert that said it was too soon. Huh? Guys, I’m trying to do the right thing here. Why not just let me pay the registration fee and save us all the grief of a potential late renewal? By the time I remembered I had to renew, I was close enough to the expiration that I had to rush to get it in on time. If I’d been able to do it when I wanted, none of that stress would’ve come up. I know it may seem “first world problem” sounding, but if being ready to pay sooner when you have the money rather than later when you may not is met with a roadblock, it’s not so “poor little rich girl.” Because, honestly? I had the money at the time. I didn’t know as the weeks went by and more bills came in that I’d have it then.
When you think of anyone who finds themselves unable to afford — not forgetting to pay but UNABLE TO PAY — that lump sum at the end of the year, regardless of why, they’re sweating it. They’re driving with expired tags on their license plate that could lead to getting their cars impounded if they’re pulled over — the dreaded late registration renewal zone. If that happens, they’ll have to finagle another way to get to work or school or wherever it is they need to go. And when you rely on your car and suddenly find yourself having to turn to a public transportation system that is unreliable in your area or doesn’t travel at the times you need to get you where you have to be on time, or find yourself having to spend money you don’t have on ride-hailing you can’t afford, you’re stuck.
Not so first world sounding, is it? Not when the choice you’ve got to make is between paying your reg renewal fee and taking care of your family. It made me think and that thinking got me wondering and that wondering got me, well, looking at options.
Making it easier for everybody
First off, paper notices just don’t seem to be working. Why not send out email or text reminders similar to just about any utility service these days? I get bill reminders from my mobile phone, gas and electric company via email and text all the time. They’ve even made it so I can pay from those messages right away. Easy.
When I heard about how they handle paying registration renewal fees in both South Australia (SA) and the UK, I thought, “Hey, we could do that in the U.S.” They allow you to set up automatic payments through your bank or credit/debit cards. Or what about adding your vehicle registration renewal fee to your monthly car payment? Totally optional, of course.
Honesty, I have no idea what the answer is, but I know there has to be something, ANYTHING, that can be done so that none of us find ourselves stuck in the late registration renewal zone. I shudder at the thought and am happy to find whatever makes it so I don’t have to deal with suddenly realizing I’m late on my renewal and am now stuck with not only the registration fee, but late charges plus whatever ticket I may have gotten PLUS… you get my drift. If it makes renewing my registration easy, friendly and NOT LATE, I’m all about it.
Stress relief, please
I understand, completely, about the need to pay taxes/fees to support infrastructure and other necessary services in our communities. Truly, I do. I get that it helps the DMV or whatever other transport department. BUT… and I make this a REALLY BIG but… making it easier for people to support the process by giving them better, more successful ways to feed the machines of progress seem like they would bring even more money into the coffers of every local, state, federal and international government office. People are more likely to comply with a process that supports their ability to do so rather than something that feels like it’s a setup for failure.
Ever since I thought about writing this, I’ve found myself looking at the license plate tags of the cars in front of me. I notice a theme — there is none. I’ve been behind just as many name any luxury automobile with late stickers as I have name any economy vehicle. I always wonder how freaked out that driver must be about being pulled over. I even saw a car that was two years past due and all I could think the entire time was, “Whoa, they must be panic driving all the time.”
As I said, all of this could be my paranoia projected on everybody else, but every person I’ve spoken to in researching this has a kind of visceral response. They’re either irritated by how inconvenient and painful it is to do every year, impart a tale (or more) of woe about being at the receiving end of a late registration renewal, or overtaken by a doe in the headlights look as they suddenly realize they haven’t done it yet. It makes me believe this is something that needs to be fixed, because no one should be made to choose between feeding their family or being able to hold onto their transportation so they can get to work, school, wherever, and registering their vehicle. That it comes to that sometimes is a stress that anyone who owns or leases a car should never have to bear.