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Printing error adds confusion to new Texas windshield sticker system

People wait in line for their car registration stickers at the Northeast Subcourthouse in Hurst on March 2. New rules took effect March 1 requiring only one car sticker for both registration and inspections. Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright answered questions about the new rules from Anuj Joshi of Euless.
People wait in line for their car registration stickers at the Northeast Subcourthouse in Hurst on March 2. New rules took effect March 1 requiring only one car sticker for both registration and inspections. Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright answered questions about the new rules from Anuj Joshi of Euless. Star-Telegram

It’s been a confusing couple of weeks for Texas vehicle owners who are trying to switch to a new system in which only one windshield sticker is needed for both their registration and inspection.

And for about 320,000 automobile owners, it’s about to get even more baffling.

Last week, renewal forms with a printing error were accidentally sent to about 320,000 drivers whose annual registration fees are due in April, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles said.

The error affects about 16 percent of automobile owners whose registrations are due next month — roughly 22,000 people in the Fort Worth area.

Their renewal forms should have included a $14.25 state fee that must be paid before a new sticker will be issued. Even though the fee was inadvertently left off, car owners will be responsible for paying the correct amount before their registration will be renewed, officials said.

The registration amount varies by factors such as county of residence and type of vehicle, but for many Tarrant County residents the amount due should be $78.

At county tax offices across the state, workers are preparing for a possible barrage of confusion, consternation and complaints about the mistake.

“We hope people will be patient,” said Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright, whose office handles about 2 million vehicle registrations per year.

The motor vehicles department mailed out corrected forms to all vehicle owners who received the wrong paperwork, agency spokesman Adam Shaivitz said.

The switch to the one-sticker system led to the mistake on the forms. In the past, the $14.25 state fee was collected when motorists had their cars inspected. But starting March 1, when the one-sticker system went into effect, the state stopped collecting the fee at inspection stations and instead asked counties to begin collecting the fee at the time of vehicle registration.

State officials are hopeful that the number of people who are inconvenienced by the mistake will be small.

For example, of those 320,000 car owners who were sent the flubbed forms, experience shows that the overwhelming majority of them will renew registration in person at their county tax office, Shaivitz said. County employees won’t allow the registration to be renewed unless the proper amount is paid, and the employees can explain the mistake to the customer face to face.

Also, for the tiny percentage of Texans who like to renew online, the software won’t allow them to renew unless they pay the right amount.

Car owners who renew registration by mail are the ones most likely to be affected. If they submit payment with the erroneous registration form, their payment will be mailed back to them with a note explaining that they’ll have to resubmit the renewal with the proper payment.

Within that group, vehicle owners who wait until the last minute could experience a delay of a week or more in getting their registration done. In the meantime, if their registration sticker expires, they run the risk of getting pulled over.

Even those who pay early, at the very least, will end up having to pay postage twice.

“We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused,” Jeremiah Kuntz, director of the motor vehicles department’s vehicle titles and registration division, wrote in a letter to vehicle owners last week. “The notice we sent to you earlier this month was printed with an incorrect fee and should be discarded. You are receiving a corrected renewal notice that displays the fee amount that is actually owed.”

About 22,000 erroneous renewal forms were sent to motorists in Tarrant County, Wright estimates. According to the state average, about 4 percent of residents typically renew by mail. If that holds true, about 880 Tarrant County drivers could mistakenly send in the wrong amount for their registration payment.

The state’s one-sticker system has been a bit of a burden on county-level employees, especially during the first few days, when an electronic-data-sharing system didn’t work and county workers had to look up vehicle identification numbers manually. Wright said he believes that state officials are doing their best to roll out a system that, while complicated today, will benefit the state in the long term.

“When you have a new system, it seems it doesn’t even matter how long you test it. When you get into the real world, you find errors,” he said. “We know DMV is working feverishly to have this resolved, and we know they will.”

Aside from the change in fees, the key difference is that inspection stations no longer place an inspection sticker on the owner’s vehicle. Instead, the inspector enters whether the vehicle passed or failed into an online program.

Then, when the motorist’s registration is up for renewal, the county tax office looks up the inspection records to verify that the vehicle passed before issuing a new sticker.

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

Also, the cost of an inspection has dropped to $25.50 for most vehicles, since the $14.25 state fee is no longer collected at inspection stations.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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