This push culminated in a 2011 document from the AAMVA titled Best Practice Regarding Registration and Titling of Mini-Trucks. It’s widely cited as the motivation behind the states’ behavior against imports. And it features some incredible lines of text:

By allowing on-road operation of used mini-trucks, Canada and the U.S. are accepting another nation‘s cast-offs—vehicles that no longer meet the exporting country‘s vehicle safety or emissions standards. Increasing the supply of older model vehicles in North America undermines government and industry efforts to improve vehicle safety and reduce vehicle emissions, as these efforts are largely dependent on fleet turnover. This risk can be reduced by placing restrictions on the use of these non-conforming vehicles in Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions.

But it doesn’t explain a number of problems. Why are the states canceling registrations when the document says that existing vehicles can be grandfathered in? Why are vehicles far outside of the kei class being targeted?

A Mitsubishi Canter (Fuso here in the U.S.) is not a mini truck.
A Mitsubishi Canter (Fuso here in the U.S.) is not a mini truck.
Image: AAMVA

The states aren’t just following that 2011 document, but also a fresher 2021 document with more aggressive recommended practices.

In 2021, Maine’s BMV, with the help of the DMVs of Georgia, Colorado and South Dakota published Regulation of Off-Road Vehicles: Best Practices, which clamps down on imported vehicles in a weird way.

Image for article titled More States Are Banning Legally Imported Cars And Nobody Will Say Why
Image: AAMVA

Older documents circulated to AAMVA members deferred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA classifies an off-road vehicle as a vehicle not designed for on-road use that does not meet FMVSS standards. However, the NHTSA also notes that imports that are 25 years and older are exempt from meeting said standards.

The 2021 AAMVA document takes the definition of an off-road vehicle a couple of important steps further. AAMVA simplifies the definition before specifically calling out mini trucks that are 25 years or older as not being exempt from the organization’s definition.

An off-road vehicle is defined as a vehicle that is not designed and manufactured to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. They may also be referred to as off-highway vehicles.

Maine changed its laws to match this new definition right before canceling the registrations of all sorts of imported cars.

This means that based on how these states are interpreting this language, just about anything you’d want to import from a Renault Twingo to Jason’s Nissan Pao to my Honda Beat are now “off-road vehicles.” The wording is vague enough that technically, domestic cars that predate FMVSS shouldn’t be legal for road use, either.

The 2011 document suggested that agencies not register or allow mini trucks on public roads, but left the option to grandfather in vehicles already with valid registrations. The 2021 version goes harder, adding a couple of caveats to the grandfathering in of currently-registered vehicles while also suggesting that agencies cancel the registrations of those vehicles. See the image below:

Image for article titled More States Are Banning Legally Imported Cars And Nobody Will Say Why
Image: AAMVA

Yep, this means that should the state choose to allow an owner to continue driving their mini truck, they can never sell it to a new owner. Basically, the recommendation is designed so that if the state can’t get the truck off of the road right now, it will eventually.

If you think that this can’t be legal, you aren’t alone. Even the AAMVA knows that what it’s telling the states to do may run against existing laws. For that, the AAMVA is telling the states to simply change their laws until this is legal.

Special note: Some of these best practices might conflict with or lack support by a jurisdiction‘s laws. In such cases, jurisdictions are encouraged to pursue statutory changes necessary to implement the best practices. However, if statutory changes prohibiting the use of off-road vehicles on public roadways are not possible, the recommendations in Sections 3 and 4 are provided as alternatives to assist those jurisdictions.

Sections 3 and 4 allow the use of a mini truck vehicle on the road, but under very limited circumstances like roads with speeds no greater than 35 mph and branding the titles of imports as “Off-Road Vehicle.” An imported car could be difficult to sell to a person in a state that does allow imported cars on its roads with such a title brand.

Image for article titled More States Are Banning Legally Imported Cars And Nobody Will Say Why
Image: AAMVA

The document also targets golf carts as off-road vehicles, but gives them special considerations. One of them is allowing the operation of golf carts on public roads so long as local ordinances say so. Such a consideration isn’t given to the localities that allow the on-road usage of imported vehicles.

New York, Pennsylvania, Maine and Rhode Island have elected not to allow mini trucks to be grandfathered in, instead choosing the recommended practice of recalling all registrations for an outright ban.

Image for article titled More States Are Banning Legally Imported Cars And Nobody Will Say Why
Image: Dave

While Maine BMV Registration Section Supervisor Nikki Bachelder is in part responsible for the 2021 document, it should also be noted that Walter Craddock, Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles administrator, also serves on the AAMVA’s board of directors.

Rhode Island isn’t answering questions. Autoblog took matters into its own hands, filing an Access to Public Records Act request. As a result, it found the laws the state is using to deny registrations. The state points to the AAMVA best practices. But instead of changing its laws, it’s trying to shoehorn two existing laws to fit. General Laws § 31-3-5 says that a vehicle can be denied registration because it is “mechanically unfit or unsafe” for highways. General Laws § 31-38-1 state that no person should operate a vehicle on a highway unless it is in good working order and in safe mechanical condition.

These laws have been on Rhode Island’s books for years and owners of imported vehicles were able to register vehicles despite them, until now.

Lawsuits have been filed against these states questioning the legality of the states canceling registrations. Lawyers familiar with the matter have told Jalopnik that these actions are probably illegal. At the moment, Rhode Island appears to have temporarily stopped canceling registrations while litigation is ongoing.

AAMVA’s alleged motivation behind this is safety. The 2011 mini truck document cites two studies:

A 2007 Insurance Corporation of British Columbia study found that RHD vehicles have a 44% higher risk of crashing over a four-year period than comparable LHD vehicles. The average time to first culpable crash for RHD vehicles was 68% sooner than for LHD vehicles. The higher crash rate was attributed to the reduced direct field of view for drivers of RHD vehicles in a right-lane traffic environment.

A 2009 Quebec study found that RHD passenger cars have a 32% higher risk of crashing than comparable LHD passenger cars.

The 2021 document forgoes the explanation of why these vehicles are unsafe and just states that mini trucks don’t meet FMVSS standards.

To answer the question of why: The states are simply following the guidance of the AAMVA. This isn’t new as states often do draw on the AAMVA for changes to their driving laws. The difference now is that the AAMVA has become a bit more aggressive against mini trucks. The best practices document against mini trucks can even be found on current versions of the AAMVA the Week in Review newsletter, viewable by AAMVA members.

Unfortunately, this paints a bleak future for JDM enthusiasts as member states are encouraged to implement AAMVA’s recommendations.

Some questions remain. It was only until recently when the AAMVA changed the definition of an off-road vehicle to include practically any import. Why the recent change? Why are states canceling registrations instead of grandfathering in vehicles? If safety is a concern, why is it just imported vehicles seemingly being targeted?

Image for article titled More States Are Banning Legally Imported Cars And Nobody Will Say Why
Photo: Mercedes Streeter

I’ve reached out for comment to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Paul Grimaldi, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Revenue, as well as Patrice Aasmo, Regional Director of Regions 1 and 2 of AAMVA. I’ve also contacted DMV officials in a number of states including Pennsylvania and New York.

Grimaldi responded and gave this answer for a question if Rhode Island expects other AAMVA member states to follow suit:

We wouldn’t be able to comment on what regulations other states might adopt. I will get back to you should we want to comment beyond that.

It should be noted that Rhode Island did not answer a question we asked in September regarding the validity of the aforementioned alleged leaked memo. The other representatives and officials have not responded at time of writing.