Owners of imported vehicles are once again finding themselves on familiar, unstable ground. Georgia is among a growing list of states with rules telling officials to stop titling and registering legally imported, over 25-year-old Japanese vehicles. Owners are being left with pretty paperweights that cannot be driven on Georgia roads. Here is how and why Georgia is doing it.
For more than two years, many owners of Japanese Domestic Market cars in America have been facing an uphill battle with numerous states. Back in the summer of 2021, Maine and Rhode Island began revoking the registrations of vehicles that were legally imported into America and registered in those respective states. Later, Maine and Rhode Island were joined by New York, Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, each imparting upon JDM vehicle owners varying levels of registration difficulties.
For example, New York, Georgia, Maine, and Rhode Island all started recalling the titles and registrations of JDM vehicles while Pennsylvania allowed some already registered vehicles to be grandfathered in. Pennsylvania also allows Kei car owners to register their vehicles as antiques, which at least allows the vehicles to be driven occasionally.
Georgia Department of Revenue “Motor Vehicle Division Policy Bulletin MVD-2023-05″ has surfaced on Facebook and JDM enthusiast sites. It reminds Georgia county tag offices that Kei-class vehicles cannot be registered in the state. Apparently, as the letter notes, Kei-class vehicles have been improperly titled and registered by Georgia tag offices, and the state seems to want to crack down on that. This spells bad news for enthusiasts who might have been able to register their imports in Georgia over the past two years.
Despite appearances, Georgia is not the latest state to join the fray. Back when I was still schlepping Smart Fortwo posts over at the German Lighting Site, I received emails from concerned JDM vehicle owners in Georgia. That was back in 2021 almost immediately following the original debacle in Maine and Rhode Island. Based on that, it would appear that Georgia also started denying titles and registrations over two years ago. The letter suggests that not all county tag offices were following the rules.
What Started This Nightmare?
Each state that has imposed rules against the registration and titling of imported vehicles has its own way of doing things. Maine decided to change its laws to effectively ban all imported vehicles from being able to be registered. The state modified 29-A MRSA 354 on June 15, 2021, which defines what the state considers to be an off-road vehicle:
“‘Off-road vehicle’ means a motor vehicle that, because of the vehicle’s design and, configuration, original manufacture or original intended use, does not meet the inspection standards of chapter 15, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s pollutant requirements or the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s crash testing standards and that is not a moped or motorcycle.”
You read that right. Under Maine’s definition of ‘off-road vehicle,’ anything you import into America that doesn’t have EPA or NHTSA certification, including a sweet 25-year-old Nissan Skyline, is on the same level as a Can-Am Maverick side-by-side. If you were to take Maine’s approach by the letter, vehicles built before 1967 and therefore predating the original application of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards should also be removed from the road.
Rhode Island took a different approach, deciding to reinterpret existing laws on its books. 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.
Those laws have been on Rhode Island’s books for years, and owners of imported vehicles were able to register vehicles despite them. However, Rhode Island has since changed how it interprets these laws to prohibit JDM imports from operating on its roads. Vehicle owners in Maine and Rhode Island have sued the state in attempts to get their registrations valid again. It is unclear what happened in those suits, but as of today, the aforementioned laws still stand.
Over in Maine, Rep. Shelley Rudnicki introduced a bill that, if passed, would no longer class a vehicle that could be imported under the 25-year rule as an off-road vehicle. As of writing, the bill is still pending.
So, that brings us to what’s happening in Georgia. As I noted before, the letter isn’t representing a new change in the state’s laws, but seemingly cracking down on tag offices not following current guidance. Let’s go through some lines and explain what’s going on.
Georgia opens with these lines, stating that county tag offices have been registering Kei-class vehicles due to the fact that Kei cars are legal in other states and they look like they should be legal in Georgia. Emphasis mine:
The purpose of this bulletin is to notify County Tag Offices of the Department’s policy that prohibits the titling and registering of Japanese kei vehicles, minitrucks and similar vehicles (collectively, Kei Vehicles) in Georgia. Kei Vehicles are imported (primarily from Japan) for use as farming vehicles and off-road recreational vehicles in the United States.Periodically customers attempt to title and register these vehicles. Kei Vehicles are not compliant with U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Therefore, they are not “street legal.” Kei Vehicles are barred from titling and registration.
Kei Vehicles are street legal in Japan. They have many features also found on street legal vehicles in Georgia, including headlights, taillights, seat belts and other features seen in other vehicles that are permitted on Georgia roads. Additionally, some states do consider Kei Vehicles to be street legal. Due to the similarities between Kei Vehicles and other street legal vehicles, combined with the differing laws in various states, both customers and county tag offices have been confused by the title and registration laws relating to these vehicles. Due to this confusion, certain customers have successfully, albeit unlawfully, had their Kei Vehicles titled and registered in Georgia.
It is important for counties to avoid titling and registering Kei Vehicles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety issued a report warning that Kei Vehicles cannot protect passengers from collisions with even the smallest, lightest FMVSS vehicles. Kei Vehicles are not safe to be driven on Georgia roads.
Georgia then tells county tag offices how to identify an imported Japanese vehicle. The state tells county officials to count VIN digit length, noting that JDM cars aren’t going to have the 17-digit VIN of an FMVSS-compliant vehicle. However, Georgia also notes that the rule there doesn’t apply to vehicles made before 1981. If that somehow fails to identify the JDM vehicle, the state tells officials to put the VIN into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) VIN Decoder to see if the decoder spits out this message: “Error Text: 7 – Manufacturer is not registered with NHTSA for sale or importation in the U.S. for use on U.S roads; Please contact the manufacturer directly for more information.”
Lastly, Georgia tells officials to physically inspect the vehicle in search of the FMVSS sticker stating: “This vehicle conforms to all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) in effect on the date of manufacture shown above.”
Georgia makes it clear a couple of times in the letter that it believes its county tag offices have dropped the ball on imported vehicle registration. However, the state notes that owners of these vehicles can expect to have their plates revoked for the mistake:
We are aware that some Kei Vehicles imported into Georgia have been improperly titled and registered. When the Department learns of such titles and registrations, we issue a letter (i) notifying the owner that the title and registration are invalid and (ii) requesting return of the title. We also cancel the title and revoke the registration.
The State’s Argument
So, on what grounds is Georgia revoking the titles and registrations of imported vehicles? The letter states:
The Department and the County Tag Offices cannot give legal advice, which should be made clear to customers. The County Tag Office is also not responsible for providing legal defenses of Department positions. However, you may share with customers who insist on a legal basis for excluding Kei Vehicles from titling and registration that O.C.G.A. § 40-3-30.1(f) prohibits titling or registering unconventional motor vehicles. Kei Vehicles are manufactured for the Japanese domestic vehicle market and are not manufactured to be compliant with FMVSS, so under Georgia law they are unconventional motor vehicles and cannot be titled and registered.
I decided to pull O.C.G.A. § 40-3-30.1(f). It states:
(A) “Unconventional motor vehicle or motorcycle” means any motor vehicle or motorcycle that is not manufactured in compliance with the following:
(i) Chapter 8 of Title 40, relating to equipment and inspection of motor vehicles;
(ii) Applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards issued pursuant to 49 U.S.C.A. Section 30101, et seq., unless and until the United States Customs and Border Protection Agency or the United States Department of Transportation has certified that the motor vehicle complies with such applicable federal standards; or
(iii) Applicable federal emission standards issued pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 7401 through Section 7642, the “Clean Air Act,” as amended.
(B) Such term shall not include former military motor vehicles.
The letter specifically points to section (f), which states:
(f) Unconventional motor vehicles or motorcycles shall not be titled or registered; provided, however, that a multipurpose off-highway vehicle manufactured after January 1, 2000, shall be registered upon proper application and payment of the required fee.
Ga. Code § 40-3-30.1 has contained the “unconventional motor vehicles” line for many years, going back to at least 2010. Oh, and the term “unconventional vehicles” comes straight from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and we’ll get to that organization in a moment.
However, it seems the state didn’t begin enforcing it until two years ago. Even weirder is the fact that according to a prior and still current section of code, Ga. Code § 40-3-30, the state does allow the titling of a vehicle that is 25 years or older:
a. In addition to the reasons set forth in Code Section 40-3-29, no application shall be accepted and no certificate of title shall be issued to any motor vehicle which was not manufactured to comply with applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards issued pursuant to 49 U.S.C.A. Section 30101, et seq., unless and until the United States Customs Service or the United States Department of Transportation has certified that the motor vehicle complies with such applicable federal standards and unless all documents required by the commissioner for processing an application for a certificate of registration or title are printed and filled out in the English language or are accompanied by an English translation.
b. The provisions of subsection (a) of this Code section shall not apply to applications for certificates of title for such motor vehicles first titled in Georgia that have a manufactured date that is 25 years or older at the time of application. Certification of compliance shall only be required at the time of application for the issuance of the initial Georgia certificate of title.
This has also been on the books for at least as long as the ‘unconventional vehicles’ section. So, one section of Georgia’s code states that vehicles have to meet FMVSS unless they’re 25 years or older. However, the very next section says too bad, no title or registration for you. What does the state say? No FMVSS sticker, no title or registration:
The Department has yet to see any importation paperwork confirming that a Kei Vehicle is FMVSS compliant and can be titled and registered in Georgia. O.C.G.A. § 40-3-30 does provide that if the U.S. Customs Service or the U.S. Department of Transportation certifies that a vehicle complies with FMVSS, then the vehicle can be titled. However, such a certification would be a special document separate from the standard importation paperwork, and we have yet to see an importer, dealer or owner present such a document.
Some owners believe that because the U.S. Customs Service permits a vehicle to be imported into the United States then the vehicle is street legal and can be titled and registered in Georgia. This is incorrect. If customs officials permit a Kei Vehicle or other non-FMVSS vehicle to be imported, that means the vehicle can legally enter Georgia but may be used for offroad uses only.
The customs documentation provided by an owner can provide clues that the vehicle cannot be titled and registered. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Form HS-7, Declaration—Importation of Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicle Equipment Subject to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety, Bumper and Theft Prevention Standards has two checkboxes that are commonly used to import Kei Vehicles.
The Organization Behind This Mess
As I’ve written a few times before, the states are actually following guidance from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. From my previous piece on the matter:
In November 2021, I located the source of this madness, and it was the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA). This is a non-governmental non-profit lobbying organization composed of motor vehicle and law enforcement administrators and executives from all 50 states. Canada, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington D.C. get representation in the AAMVA as well. Among other things, the organization seeks standardization of laws across the states regarding traffic safety, vehicle titling, and driver licensing. AAMVA does not have legislative power but it does urge all member states to follow its “best practices.”
Vehicles imported from Japan and China have been on AAMVA’s radar since the late 2000s. Back then, the organization noticed how tons of Kei trucks were flooding American shores and the states didn’t really know how to handle them. It should be noted that a lot of these trucks weren’t older vehicles imported under the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988, but newer trucks with speed limiters meant for farm or utility work.
The recommendation for restrictions largely didn’t happen in the aforementioned states until 2021, when Maine’s BMV, with the help of the DMVs of Georgia, Colorado, and South Dakota published Regulation of Off-Road Vehicles: Best Practices.
I highly recommend giving my history on JDM car bans a read, but the important part to know is that the AAMVA urges state DMV administrators to classify any vehicle that doesn’t meet FMVSS as an off-road vehicle, barring them from road use. But, weirdly, it also specifically targets Kei trucks that are otherwise legal to import into America. The AAMVA recommends removing Kei vehicles from American roads because safety experts believe the vehicles are unsafe:
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.
This statement followed an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety opinion that low-speed vehicles and mini trucks are unsafe and should be removed from the road. Georgia’s letter cites the aforementioned opinion.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires that a vehicle either meet FMVSS or be at least 25 years old to be exempt. The EPA, on the other hand, either wants the vehicle to meet its emissions standards or be at least 21 years old. This is the infamous “25-Year Rule,” officially, the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988 that governs when an enthusiast can finally bring their dream car into America. However, being able to get your car across the border doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to register it and drive it on the road. That is because vehicle registration is handled by the states. In fact, the state of Wisconsin says this, emphasis mine:
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows for vehicles to be imported into the country once the vehicle has reached a certain age. However, NHTSA and EPA are not responsible for regulating the operation of motor vehicles on public roads in the U.S. or for titling or registering motor vehicles for such operation:that is the responsibility of the individual states.
The most shocking part is that the AAMVA admits in its documentation above that its recommendations may clash with existing laws. When that happens, AAMVA recommends that a state just change its laws until the recommendations are legal. As I said before, some states are changing their laws, others are just reinterpreting or otherwise enforcing existing laws.
A Long Road Ahead
Unfortunately, I fear this is far from the end of the road for the owners of imported vehicles. The AAMVA issues recommendations for all states and it may be only a matter of time before imported car bans spread further westward. As it is, some states already make imported vehicle ownership difficult. Wisconsin says it does not register Kei-class vehicles. You can register a larger import, but it must not be modified and it cannot be your primary car. Those rules date back at least a decade.
I have reached out to AAMVA officials as well as top officials at the Georgia Department of Driver Services as well as the Georgia Department of Revenue, Motor Vehicle Division. The Department of Driver Services pointed me to the Department of Revenue. Should these individuals reply or return calls, I will update this article as well as write an update.
Are you someone impacted by the rules imposed by these states? If so, how are you coping with this situation? Have you found ways to keep your car on the road?
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