Opinion: A leap forward for cars, consumers and California

For most consumers, buying a car ranks second only to the financial commitment that comes with home ownership.  It’s challenging enough in a good economy, but with working families trying to stretch their dollars, there couldn’t be a better time to reform how cars are bought and registered in California.

Fortunately, California may soon take a giant leap forward toward making the purchase of a used car considerably less risky.  A rare coalition of consumer organizations, law enforcement officials, and car dealers has come together in support AB 1215, authored by Assemblyman Member Bob Blumenfield, D-San Fernando Valley.  

For car buyers, the bill requires dealers to disclose vehicle title information which consumers in other states hardly know exists.  It requires all car dealers to obtain a vehicle title report for each used vehicle offered for sale.  If a vehicle is identified as “salvage,” junk,” “flood,” or a “buyback” under California’s lemon law, the dealership must place a warning sticker on it.  This first-in-the-nation consumer protection will relay vital information about a vehicle’s safety, reliability, and worth BEFORE consumers choose to negotiate a purchase.
To ensure that these vehicle title reports are as helpful and accurate as possible, AB 1215 requires that the report include a search by the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).  Maintained by the U. S. Department of Justice, NMVTIS is the only vehicle database to which 100 percent of the nation’s insurers, junk and salvage yards, and state motor vehicle departments are required by federal law to report updated title information at least every 30 days.  Many are reporting daily.

Nearly 800,000 used cars were sold last year by California’s new car dealers and vehicle history searches were frequently part of those sales.  So, it’s troubling that two major companies now providing vehicle history reports to consumers and dealerships refuse to incorporate NMVTIS data in their reports.  A recent study issued by the National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program concludes that if they did include NMVTIS data, these companies would have the best products available to protect the public.  Requiring dealers to check NMVTIS will help curb auto theft and salvage fraud, collectively saving consumers and dealerships billions each year by preventing junk cars from entering the market unnoticed.  A NMVTIS database search is the base-line standard we need to help dealers and consumers know the title histories of the vehicles they buy.  

Once a car is purchased, AB 1215 makes several reforms to expedite car registration and licensing.  It requires new car dealers to register vehicles electronically with the Department of Motor Vehicles, starting next year.  Consequently, car buyers will get their new license plates in about a week compared to 2 to 6 months when cars are registered manually.  And, to ensure that license plates are installed more expeditiously, the bill reduces from 6-months to 90 days the time that consumers may legally drive without permanent license plates.  That will help law enforcement ensure that drivers conform to our rules of the road.

As the high-tech capital of the world, California has shown that innovations in technology make business better.  If this bill’s electronic registration requirement were in effect last year, it would have saved the state nearly $10 million by cutting DMV car registration costs in half.  That’s nearly enough funds to restore budget cuts that will cause 70 state parks to close next year.  With only about 40 percent of car registration now done electronically, we will also see shorter lines at our local DMV offices.

It’s also true that AB 1215 will, for the first time in five years, raise the statutory cap on what dealers can charge consumers for processing their vehicle transactions, completing title and registration work, and complying with the new requirements of the bill.  These document processing charges are not government fees, and they are negotiable. Even with the proposed increase, California will still have the second-lowest cap in the nation – while most states have no cap at all.  Plus, no other state can match the built-in protections and convenience awaiting Californians in AB 1215.

Advocates for consumers, law enforcement officials, and car dealers are united in supporting the historic reforms in AB 1215.  For decades, California has been on the cutting edge in improving protections for new and used car buyers. AB 1215 promises to continue that proud tradition.

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