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Zero Intolerance

How a computer’s inability to distinguish certain characters in a vehicle identification number can lead to a DMV nightmare

By B. A. Nilsson

In the end, she decided to blame me. After all, it was I who suggested to my wife that she not surrender the license plates before she had the new ones in hand. I’m going to go out on the sexist limb a bit and suggest that men spend much more time in the Department of Motor Vehicles offices than do women, experiencing that unique frustration of long lines and incorrect forms. It’s horse trading in the modern world: It toughens you.

But Susan had researched her mission, found the proper forms on the DMV’s Web site, switched the insurance, signed the paperwork—she was ready to transfer ownership to us of the two cars we drove, cars formerly owned by a business run by her family.

So confident was she in the ease of this transaction that she began it by handing over the four license plates. And the trouble began.

“The record for this plate shows that there was no insurance on the vehicle from January to October 2001,” said the clerk, indicating a freshly printed page of green. It was almost as an afterthought that she also noted that both vehicle title certificates had been altered with Wite-Out by an unthinking secretary, completely invalidating the purpose of our visit.

Because of the insurance lapse, the clerk explained, Susan would have to wait an equivalent amount of months to reregister the car. In other words, it was off the road until November—sitting, license-plate-free, in the DMV parking lot.

This was the only time I’ve seen my wife grow hysterical without my provocation. It was a hysteria that grew slowly, feeding on the frequent trips the clerk made to a back room to consult with an unseen superior. By the time the total futility of this venture was clear, Susan was sputtering and shouting as the clerk intoned that No. 1 bureaucratic catchphrase, “I only work here.”

And then the cop walked in. Sauntered in, I should say, taking a seat in the rear of the DMV office, well behind the clerk. And he murmured to one of the other clerks, “It’s just that when you see Wite-Out on a document like that, you have to wonder what kind of criminal activity is going on.”

“This!?” Susan stammered. “This!? This is how you, how you handle me!? You call the police!?”

The clerk registered genuine surprise: “What? No! Not at all!”

I believed her. I also took the opportunity to hustle Susan out of the room and out of the building. I’d gotten my own license plates back and, once outside, calmed her slightly by explaining that we at least could get her car back to the house.

One plate went back on the back of my car; as I screwed the other to the back of hers, feeling a unique thrill of criminal freedom, I saw that same cop approaching us. “You deal with him,” Susan insisted.

Obviously, there was no explaining my way out of this one. But the Gods of Folly smiled: They’d sent him only to assure us that his presence in that office was purely coincidental and he didn’t want us to think, etc.

Back home, we learned that the vehicle had, in fact, been insured all along. It’s not enough, however, for the insurance company to explain this to DMV. It has to go into their computer system and wait for the system to update, which can take days. While we waited, I tried to find out why there had been this mistake.

“According to our records,” a DMV insurance department clerk explained, “a notice of insurance cancellation was submitted on Jan. 14, 2001. On March 15, that cancellation was reinstated.”

“That’s when we resubmitted the insurance policy,” the agency agent told me. “DMV put in a new computer system that month, and we had to submit it electronically. It must have been rejected for some reason. In March, we renewed the policy and submitted it again. And it was rejected again.”

As a vehicle owner, you’re supposed to get a letter when this happens; no letter ever arrived, according to the person who handles such things at the business we were buying the cars from. They’ve had personnel turnover since then, though, so nobody’s going to the mat to swear this is true.

But what’s with this DMV computer system? “We put that in as a way to cover after the estimated 800,000 motorists in New York who don’t carry insurance coverage,” said DMV spokesman Matt Burns. “Now we can have immediate notification to narrow down and identify individuals without insurance, and take steps to remove them from the road.”

When the insurance agent called back, the reason for Susan’s dilemma began to emerge. “I’m looking at the vehicle identification number,” the agent said. “You see where there’s a zero in it? On some forms, that’s written as a zero; on others, it’s an ‘O.’ DMV thinks it’s supposed to be a zero, so it probably had the wrong character in that spot when it was submitted.”

I checked the car’s VIN plate to see which character was correct. There was no way of telling. So I called Chrysler and spoke with Heather May in the public relations division. “It’s a zero,” she told me. “Part 565 of a federal law mandates that no vehicle identification numbers can contain an ‘O,’ ‘I,’ or ‘Q’. So we haven’t used any of those characters in the last 15 years.”

Now I saw a likely scenario. For years, DMV paperwork has been processed by hand. Should any of those VIN characters look like an ‘O’ or ‘Q,’ it was understood to be a zero. Likewise with ‘I’ and one. Which meant that those who filled out such forms never really had to worry about getting it right—until the computer system arrived. Computers don’t make that distinction. They can be programmed to do so, but somebody first has to decide that it’s important enough to warrant the expense.

Susan’s problem couldn’t have been unique. I asked Matt Burns about the procedure for dealing with an incorrect VIN. “There certainly should be some kind of response,” he said. “We would let the insurance company know that we can’t process it, and ask for new information. I hope your problem was solved in a timely manner.” He apologized for our inconvenience, and suggested that the eventual savings in insurance costs would more than make up for occasional glitches.

Insurance info was resubmitted. The lapse penalty was rescinded. Embarrassed by her earlier display, Susan took her paperwork to a DMV office in a different county and had a problem-free transaction.

With a fresh, Wite-Out-less title in hand, I returned to our local office and submitted paperwork. Beside me, a harried-looking woman asked a clerk if the rescind notice had come through yet. “Insurance troubles?” I inquired.

She groaned. “My son changed insurance companies last year and they think he’s not insured. It’s been a nightmare.”


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