Can't a poor guy keep his car?

I have a nice little car, the kind of car you're supposed to have. It's an '87 two-door Honda hatchback, gets fantastic mileage. Last time I brought it in for an emissions test, the guy told me it was pretty close to zero polluting. If you're going to drive, I figure, this is about as low-impact a car as you can inflict on the world.

So why does the entire legal/regulatory/insurance structure of this state seem bent on punishing me for it? Why are time and money being sucked out of me—at an astonishing rate—just for the privilege of keeping my little buggy? If ever there were a case of screwed-up economic incentives —of being dicked over for being not rich and trying to do the right thing —this is it.

Let me explain. A few months ago, I was rear-ended—naturally by a vehicle much bigger than mine. A smaller car would have just struck the bumper, but this pickup smashed into the hatch. The damage wasn't that great, but it was enough to total the car (meaning the cost to repair the thing exceeds its market value). OK, fine. I decided I would get it fixed anyway. This car's been in my family for 15 years and has just 80K miles; the accident didn't affect its operations at all. So why should I waste my time trying to find some other used car for the 1,800 bucks the insurance will give me, when for a few hundred more, I can hang on to this reliable one that I know so well? Why not recycle? So I got the car fixed.

The other driver's insurance company paid me $1,500 ($1,800 for the value of the car, minus $300 they pocketed in exchange for my buying it back from them), and I paid $1,500 more of my own—cash only!--to the repair shop. Of course, if I were some rich guy driving a nice new Beamer, the insurance would have paid everything over the deductible. But my own insurance premiums have surely been lower by virtue of owning an older car, so maybe it balances out.

Shortly after the claim was settled and my trusty blue Honda was back on the road, I received a threatening letter from the Washington State Department of Licensing, stating that the insurance company had reported the total loss claim and that said information "has resulted in the cancellation of your current Vehicle Certificate of Ownership (title) and registration. This vehicle must not be operated on public highways until you have met the requirements noted below" (emphasis not added). What were these requirements? For a start, write the word "TOTALED" across my title and send it off to them. Surrendering the title was only the beginning, however. My next mandated step was to "contact the Washington State Patrol to arrange for a vehicle identification number (VIN) inspection as per RCW 46.12.030 (3)." But wait, before I can even do that, I "must obtain a transit permit from a local vehicle licensing or County Auditor's office" (emphasis not added). The inspection would cost $50, "in addition to vehicle title/licensing fees." What the hell is going on? Am I a criminal? Who got hit?

I CALLED THE DEPARTMENT of Licensing to clarify what exactly I was supposed to do ("contact the Washington State Patrol"—how helpful is that?), and was informed, among other things, that I was required to bring the State Patrol original receipts for all the work done on my car (no copies allowed)—this, apparently, so they can check for stolen parts—and also, by the way, my car could be impounded at any moment under its current (il)legal status.

Great. I went off to the licensing department downtown, where I had to pay $20 for the privilege of receiving a three-day "trip permit." This little form—which must be signed and affixed to my windshield "prior to movement on Washington highways"—allowed me three days' legal passage. During those three precious days, I had to go back to the car repair place to retrieve my original receipts and then make it out to the State Patrol office in southeast Bellevue to get my car inspected.

When I called the State Patrol, the recording informed me that they offer neither appointments nor drop-ins. Instead they offer a hellish amalgam of the two: You have to show up in person, and then they assign you an appointment for later in the day—during which time, unless you happen to have a job at the Factoria Chi-Chi's, I guess you just hang around and miss a day of work. Or you could make a couple more trips back and forth across I-90; that always helps the environment.

Not being someone who likes to waste time and gas in traffic, I waited for the terrible Eastside rush hour to subside and headed over to the State Patrol office at 10:30 in the morning. Oh no, the kind lady at the office informed me, there were no public appointments available today; they were all gone by 8:30. I had to get here by 8:30? Actually, she said, we get people lined up at 7.

What on earth? Here I am, with no dependents and a very forgiving employer, who doesn't absolutely need his car for work—OK, it's a hassle. But how the hell do people in much tighter economic straits, who are juggling day care and time clocks and must have their car, deal with this? And, of course, these are the people most likely to be driving cheap old vehicles like mine—which then get totaled when an Escalade breathes on them.

ACCORDING to Mark Varadian, spokesperson for the state Department of Licensing, all these requirements are meant to protect future buyers of the car, so that these poor innocents are "armed with full information." Fine, but it doesn't quite seem fair that a Lexus driver who got in a much worse accident than me—one that seriously affected the engine—wouldn't have to deal with any of this. (In fact, he'd probably get a loaner LX 470 to take to the golf club.) Could the system be any more regressive?

Needless to say, after I waste another weekday getting my inspection, there's yet more to come. I must take the State Patrol certificate to the licensing office and apply for a new title (which will require another $15), and then return all the receipts to my repair place, which needs them back.

Or, if I don't want to bother with all this, I could walk out the door right now and purchase some brand-new gas hog of a tank for no money down and be on the road instantly. Look for me in the SUV that's about to crash through your rear window.

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