Rhode Island owners of imported Japanese Domestic Market kei cars and trucks are facing new, unexpected challenges in keeping their rides road legal. The state is following Maine’s lead in canceling the registrations of JDM kei cars. But while Maine is clear on why it’s canceling registrations, it’s hard to get a straight answer from Rhode Island.
The responses to my post about Maine’s cancelations of imported car registrations were saddening. Readers confirmed that their own cars have gotten the kiss of death from Maine and to date, there isn’t really much to do about it. But between those messages were warnings that Maine isn’t alone. Rhode Island is also canceling the registrations of imported vehicles, but the reasoning is vague and the state thus far hasn’t answered many questions.
Back in July, a reader named Casey received a letter in the mail from the Rhode Island DMV stating that his Suzuki Carry’s registration is suspended indefinitely. It’s a letter with similar wording as Maine’s but it didn’t offer any explanation:
REASON FOR SUSPENSION: D2 – UNFIT MOTOR VEHICLE.
Searching the DMV’s site yielded zero results for what this is supposed to mean. Casey asked the state for clarification and it informed him that his kei truck is unsafe.
Chuck Whoczynski, host of the Revival Motoring podcast received two letters, one for a Honda Acty and Daihatsu Mira TR-XX Avanzato.
These letters state that pursuant to Rhode Island General Laws 31-2-2 and 31-2-15, the Enforcement Office of RI’s DMV is requesting Whoczynski to contact them about his registrations. Failure to do so would result in a registration suspension.
Rhode Island General Laws 31-2-2 and 31-2-15 don’t explain why the vehicles are getting deregistered, but essentially say that the DMV and its investigators have the power to cancel registrations and seize license plates. I’ve confirmed with an attorney that these are still current today:
§ 31-2-2 Subordinates and investigators. – The administrator of the division of motor vehicles shall appoint any subordinates that he or she may require for the proper performance of his or her duties. He or she shall appoint investigators who shall be empowered to investigate the application for any motor vehicle license or registration in order to ascertain the truth of the statements made in it, to seize or recover the license or registration certificate and number plates of any person whose license or registration shall have been suspended or revoked, and to perform any other duties not inconsistent with the law as the administrator may direct.
§ 31-2-15 Seizure of documents and plates. – The division of motor vehicles is authorized to take possession of any registration card, permit, license, or registration plate issued by it upon expiration, revocation, cancellation, or suspension, or which is fictitious, or which has been unlawfully or erroneously issued.
Whoczynski says that when he complied with the letter and reached out to the DMV, he was told that his kei cars are unsafe and that his license plates should be surrendered to the state.
Casey and Whoczynski thought that they did the right thing. They bought cars that are older than 25 years old in compliance with the federal government’s infamous 25 Year Rule. Their imported vehicles cleared Customs and they even got shiny Rhode Island license places. Whoczynski says his have been registered in the state for three years and were only recently renewed before the state demanded their surrender.
Unfortunately, even if you do all of the work to appease the federal government, the state has the right to decide that certain vehicles are unfit for use on its roads. The laws on imported vehicles vary by state and some are friendlier than others.
But why is the state doing this? The answer has been annoyingly hard to find.
If you try searching Rhode Island General Laws, you won’t find anything that excludes kei cars. General Laws § 31-1-3 Types of Vehicles doesn’t appear to exclude kei cars. The aforementioned letters also do not cite any allegedly broken laws.
Kei car owners in Rhode Island say that emails go unanswered and when they do get an answer over the phone, it’s that their vehicles are simply “unsafe.”
I decided to reach out to the state myself, contacting Paul Grimaldi, spokesman for the RI Department, which oversees the state’s DMV. I’ve also contacted other DMV officials, all of which have not returned correspondence at this time.
Grimaldi confirms that residents are receiving these these letters and are being told to surrender their imported vehicles’ license plates. He says that the reason why this is happening will be revealed once the department completes a review. It has been nearly a month since since then and at this time the DMV still doesn’t have an answer.
In the meantime, Whoczynski provided me with an internal memo that was allegedly leaked by a DMV employee and given to one of his listeners. It explains that the RI DMV is canceling registrations not because of some law on its books, but because kei cars are built to different safety standards and not designed for American roadways.
I have not been able to confirm the legitimacy of this alleged leak at this time. I’ve reached out to Grimaldi about this memo and as of writing I have not received a response.
If the memo is true, Rhode Island is using similar reasoning as Maine, but Maine actually changed its laws to reflect it.
Meanwhile, as reported by the Drive, Rhode Island kei car owners are dealing with the headaches and wildly varying answers from the state. Some have been told to surrender their plates while others have been told that they can continue driving on them for now. Others have tried to get their plates back without success.
Transparency would go a very long way here. Maine was quick to respond, stating that it’s now classifying imported vehicles as off-road vehicles with updated laws to back it up. Rhode Island’s approach has thus far brought more questions than answers.
Thankfully, Rhode Island does allow its residents to appeal individual DMV decisions in court. Some kei car owners have reported some success taking this route, with the state allowing them to continue driving their cars for now.
But overall, the state has some explaining to do and until then, Rhode Island kei car owners are sort of left figuring things out on their own.
Note: This is obviously a massive waste of time and energy. Are there enough Kei cars in Maine or Rhode Island to be worthy of the attention of the state? Are they more unsafe to other drivers than say, a semi-trailer or dump trunk? Of course not. Older cars aren’t up to today’s crash standards either, are we taking those off the road? If you want to have these discussions with the people responsible for this nonsense, go ahead and give them a call or send them a fax. Phone: (401) 574-8999 Fax: (401) 574-8997 -RC