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July 16, 2014

Texans face sticker shock with new inspection process

A new law that aims to simplify Texans’ annual car registration and inspections could instead cause confusion — but state officials say they’re working on a public awareness campaign.

It’s hardly a secret that starting in March, Texans will only need one sticker on their car windshields for both registration and inspection.

But the transition to a one-sticker system may give residents a form of, well, sticker shock. Several people involved in the process say they’re concerned the change, which was approved by state lawmakers last year, may leave consumers confused.

“It’s going to be a little chaotic in the beginning,” said Tarrant County Tax Assessor/Collector Ron Wright, whose office processes more than 2 million vehicle registrations per year in the Fort Worth area. “But by the second year, the data will have synched up. It’s going to put a lot more responsibility on the tax assessor/collector’s offices in the counties, but it will save the state a lot of money.”

Under the new system, motorists still will be required to get their cars inspected annually at a state-certified inspection station, as they do now. For many people, that’s the corner lube or tire shop. Car owners still will be required to pay for that inspection, and the fee varies by county — with $39.75 paid annually by most Fort Worth-area residents.

The key difference is, starting March 1, those inspection stations won’t place a sticker on the owner’s vehicle to show the inspection was passed. Instead, the inspector will simply enter information about whether the vehicle passed or failed inspection into an online computer program, and the data will remain in the computer system until it’s needed.

Then, when the motorist’s registration is up for renewal, the local county tax office will look up the inspection records on the computer program to verify that the vehicle passed its most recent inspection before issuing the vehicle a new registration sticker. The motorist also will still have to pay the annual registration fee, which varies by county and vehicle type. For a typical Tarrant County resident, the annual fee for a car or light truck is $62, or $63 if handled by mail.

The difficult part for consumers may be remembering to have their car inspected before attempting to renew their registration.

“People are going to forget about the inspection because the sticker is not there to remind them,” said Bettie Savage, who lives in far north Fort Worth and on Wednesday had an annual inspection performed on her Chevy Tahoe at G&M Tire and Service Center near downtown.

Saving money

The main goal of switching to a one-sticker system is to prevent fraud, said Kelvin Bass, spokesman for bill sponsor state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

But the state can also reduce spending. Texas can save the roughly $2 million or more per year spent manufacturing and storing the thin pieces of plastic adhesive, he said.

“The savings will be no more production and storage of them,” Bass said.

Three state agencies are working together on the transition, said Jeremiah Kuntz, Texas Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman. The other agencies are the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the safety component of annual inspections, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which handles the emissions regulations.

Those agencies soon will embark upon a high-profile public awareness campaign to help Texans understand the impending changes as the March 1 date draws closer, Kuntz said.

The campaign is dubbed “Two steps, one sticker.”

“We’ll be providing counties and inspection facilities with posters and brochures, and we will have a combined website with more information on the change,” Kuntz said, adding that more than two dozen other states have also gone with a one-sticker system.

No cheating

One other byproduct of the switch: Car owners will no longer be able to squeeze a free month or two out of the inspection system. In the past, many motorists have continued to drive with an expired inspection sticker, knowing that police officers typically won’t give a ticket until an inspection sticker is past due by more than a month. For example, a car owner whose sticker expires the last day of July might be able to drive all of August without getting pulled over, then go into the inspection station Sept. 1 and get a sticker good for another 12 months — effectively benefiting from two free months.

Registration stickers don’t work that way. Registration renewals are only good for 12 months and always expire on the same month. For example, even if a motorist’s registration expires the last day of July and he waits until August before getting it renewed, the new registration sticker still will only be good through the following July.

Take paperwork

So in March, about eight months from now, Wright recommends that car owners take their inspection receipt with them to get annual registration renewed, in case there’s a problem with the new computer system that stores inspection information.

“When you get your inspection done and then come into the tax assessor/collector office to get your registration, we’re advising people to bring that receipt from the inspection with them,” he said. “It will work similar to bringing in proof of insurance. The system is supposed to keep an update on a person’s current insurance, but we still tell people to be sure and bring your own insurance proof.”

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