Short answer: no clear way to know. The state’s portal of motor-vehicle data may show expired tabs for a variety of legitimate reasons, and a shortage of state troopers is likely affecting enforcement.
Get pulled over for expired car tabs and your ticket could be significantly cheaper than the renewal fee, with Sound Transit 3’s tax increase, had you followed the law.
For tabs expired for less than two months, the fine is $136. For any length of time beyond that, the ticket costs $228.
Granted, violators have to pay those totals on top of the fees for new car-tab stickers, including this year’s significantly higher motor-vehicle excise tax.
“I believe that (the ST3 tax hike) will result in more expired tabs as drivers find it too expensive to renew,” Rick Thomas, of Kirkland, wrote to Traffic Lab, describing how on walks each day he sees several cars with outdated stickers. He asked, “Are police authorities planning on emphasizing this law?”
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We contacted the Washington State Patrol and state Department of Licensing (DOL) for an update on the law now that drivers in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties must pay nearly quadruple the former excise tax rate after voters approved ST3 around this time last year.
But as it turns out, there is no clear way to know whether or not the higher fees are fueling more car-tab scofflaws.
The state’s collection of motor-vehicle data may show expired tabs for a variety of lawful reasons. And the mechanism to ensure drivers renew comes down to law enforcement.
The higher tax, which is based on a car’s value, applies to tabs that expired after March 1 and comes with a bundle of other fees. An owner of a 2012 Subaru Legacy with 58,000 miles on it, for instance, would pay about $308 to renew.
According to data provided by the State Patrol, troopers made more than 119,000 stops for expired registration or tabs last year. Of those, they issued nearly 10,000 tickets and 9,000 written warnings, which disappear from drivers’ records if they prove renewal before a specific deadline.
Sgt. James Prouty said there is “no data to support or deny an increase” since the higher car-tab fees took effect.
So far this year, troopers have issued nearly 9,100 tickets and 6,650 warnings, the data show.
About six weeks before drivers should renew their tabs, the DOL sends notices via postal mail or email with their expiration deadline and total amount due, agency spokesman Brad Benfield said.
But the state’s database tracking motor vehicles will not help verify our reader’s suspicion that the higher car-tab fees are deterring renewals.
A variety of circumstances can cause a vehicle’s tabs to appear “expired” in the system, Benfield said. But that does not mean all those people are driving around Washington illegally. Someone with a registered vehicle could move out of state or leave a broken car at a junkyard without letting the state know, for example.
Benfield said the system shows 7.8 million vehicles currently registered statewide and an additional 5.2 million with inactive or “expired” registrations.
“Essentially in our state, the mechanism to make sure that cars are registered properly comes down to law enforcement — that is why we issue tickets,” he said.
When asked if troopers are changing enforcement, considering the higher car-tab tax rate, Prouty said:
“We’re going to continue to enforce that (violation) when we come in contact with it through any number of ways,” such as when drivers with expired tabs are involved in crashes or caught speeding. Troopers also pull drivers over when they spot outdated stickers on license plates.
Prouty noted the State Patrol’s ongoing staffing shortage may affect the law’s enforcement, or the number of cars people notice on highways with expired tabs. As of Sept. 1 the State Patrol had 95 vacancies among patrol troopers, out of 672 positions statewide.
“With less people out, the numbers are going to reflect that,” Prouty said.
The higher car-tab fees, along with increases in property and sales taxes, will fund transit projects that include expanding express-bus service and building 62 miles of new light rail between Tacoma and Everett by 2041.
Beyond the motor-vehicle excise tax, drivers pay a bundle of other fees to renew their tabs, including a county filing fee, state weight fee and transportation benefit district fees. The DOL has an online calculator for estimating personal amounts.
A wave of drivers who received the first rounds of the higher car-tab tax rate earlier this year complained, flooding DOL’s call center with appealsfor an explanation.
Sound Transit’s car-tab tax rate was 0.3 percent, or $30 per $10,000 of car value, for two decades until voters passed the $54 billion ST3 ballot measure last November. It was among the largest transportation proposals in U.S. history.
Now, it’s 1.1 percent of a car’s value, or $110 per $10,000.
Benfield, of the DOL, said the number of calls from drivers about the higher car-tab fees has dropped due to heightened media coverage and overall awareness.
Got a question or suggestion?
Last week, we shared readers’ comments about all-way-walk intersections that stop vehicle traffic in all directions at once. The week before, we spotlighted the state law that outlines the safety equipment bicyclists must use when riding after dark.
If you have a question or idea for us, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We may feature it in an upcoming column.