Home » Here’s The Letter From The Texas DMV That Lets People Drive Imported Trucks Again

Here’s The Letter From The Texas DMV That Lets People Drive Imported Trucks Again

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Last week, Kei truck enthusiasts in Texas celebrated a momentous occasion by getting imported Kei trucks officially legalized by the state for the first time in about 14 years. It’s the first successful reversal of a Kei ban since the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators told states to ban imported vehicles in 2021. The Texas DMV has begun circulating documents to county tax assessors-collectors and dealerships stating that these vehicles can be titled and registered for use on Texas roadways. This rule change puts Texas ahead of many states, so let’s take a look.

Before I continue, I would like to clarify our previous entry on the Texas battle for Kei trucks. Many states have had Kei truck bans on their books for long before the AAMVA issued its new guidance. For example, Wisconsin law specifically calls out Kei cars as a type of vehicle that cannot be registered and it has been like that for over a decade. Likewise, in 2019, enthusiasts in North Carolina successfully legalized Kei trucks in that state. Wisconsin has a “loophole” to its law, where you could register a non-compliant vehicle as a collector car.

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Texas is the first state to win the battle for Kei trucks after the AAMVA issued its latest and most destructive recommendations in 2021. Those recommendations have led to the nightmares so many enthusiasts in an increasing number of states are facing right now. Texans have been trying to get their state to legalize Kei trucks for well over a decade, so this win is incredible.

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Alek Roman/Texas Kei Truck Advocates

If you’re new to this story, I’ll bring you up to speed on what’s going on. Feel free to click here and here for two deep dives on how we got here.

UPDATE: By popular demand, you can now get a t-shirt and sticker showing your support for imported car ownership.

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States Control What Drives On Their Roads

Car enthusiasts in the United States are hampered by what is known as the “25 Year Rule.” To put it in layperson’s terms, the federal government has strict rules on how vehicles can be imported into the country. Those vehicles have to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as well as the EPA’s emissions standards that applied to domestically-sold vehicles built at the same time as the imported vehicles. This is an expensive process and cannot be done by regular people, rather by outfits certified for the job.

If a vehicle is non-compliant with safety and emissions regulations, it has to be at least 25 years old before the regulations no longer apply. Then you can import your favorite car without an expensive headache. Also, that’s 25 years from the vehicle’s manufacturing date, not its model year.

Unfortunately, some states have made realizing dreams a bit difficult. While the federal government is perfectly okay with you importing a 26-year-old Japanese Kei truck, whether your state is okay with it is a different story. The states reserve the right to determine what vehicles are legal to drive on their roads, and many states have decided that any Kei vehicle is not legal for road use.

Alek Roman/Texas Kei Truck Advocates

This has been a problem in several states for years. However, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators kicked the nightmare into high gear. The AAMVA is an entity we are actively researching. For now, here’s what you need to know from one of my previous pieces:

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The AAMVA is a non-governmental non-profit lobbying organization composed of motor vehicle administrators, law enforcement administrators, and executives from all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington D.C. Among other things, the organization seeks standardization of laws across member 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.”

The AAMVA has been studying Japanese and Chinese Kei vehicles since at least the late 2000s. Back then, the AAMVA didn’t really know how to handle the flood of cheap 25 mph speed-limited off-road utility trucks that came in from China. The answer came courtesy of an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety opinion published in 2010. The IIHS crash-tested a Kei truck against a Ford Ranger and concluded that low-speed vehicles and mini trucks are unsafe and should be removed from the road.

From that point forward, the AAMVA has advocated against allowing Kei trucks from being allowed on state roads. In 2021, this guidance went even further, essentially telling states to ban any vehicle that doesn’t meet FMVSS. The AAMVA was serious about this, stating in its documentation that if banning a vehicle ran afoul state law, it urged lawmakers to change the laws until the ban became legal.

AAMVA

The AAMVA’s 2021 guidance is its most destructive yet. In the past, the AAMVA focused on Kei trucks. However, its latest guidance advises states to remove any vehicle that doesn’t meet FMVSS. Further, the AAMVA says if a state finds the guidance to be illegal, the states should just change their laws until it’s legal.

This guidance is why enthusiasts in Maine, Rhode Island, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, and potentially other states are hurting right now. The sad part is that some states may have even had rules against Kei vehicles in the past, but sometimes they were not enforced or not enforced well. The AAMVA reminded those states to enforce the rules they already had or to create new rules.

Enthusiasts Fight Back…

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Mercedes Streeter

Enthusiasts have been challenging the AAMVA’s guidance and the resulting bans, from individual DMV appeals in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island to a lawsuit in Georgia. I’m told that Georgia’s Kei enthusiasts also attempted to work with their lawmakers, but it didn’t bring success. One Maine lawmaker even introduced a bill that would have reversed the ban in that state. Sadly, that bill didn’t get traction and died off. Some people have gotten small victories in individual appeals, but these states have not budged since the AAMVA’s latest guidance. That changed with Texas.

I spoke with David from the Texas Kei Truck Advocates, and he informed me that Kei trucks had effectively been banned from Texas since 2010 after HB4495, a bill that would have legalized Kei trucks, failed to become law. Despite that, some Texas Kei truck owners still had good luck getting a title and plates. It wasn’t bulletproof, as many DMV offices still refused to register Kei trucks; Kei trucks were technically illegal, but people still got plates, anyway. In recent times, Kei truck enthusiasts in Texas have been reporting the letters they received from the Texas DMV stating that their vehicles were not eligible for title and registration. Here’s a clipping from the January 2024 edition of the Texas Vehicle Title Manual:

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Texas decided to do something different.

Many Texans were still able to have Kei trucks titled and registered, so the Texas Kei Truck Advocates could have just done nothing and maintained the status quo. David told me some people felt that the Texas Kei Truck Advocates shouldn’t rock the boat. However, it’s hard not to see what’s happening in Maine and Georgia and not worry. Both of these states have decided to not only prevent the registration of imported vehicles, but they’ve also decided to revoke the titles of vehicles that were already registered. Enthusiasts in those states are stuck with what are effectively pretty paperweights.

If you wanted to buy a Kei truck and lived in Texas, you might have thought twice because what if Texas also started revoking titles? The Texas Kei Truck Advocates wanted to get ahead of the situation by working to legalize Kei trucks before the possibility of the state deciding to revoke existing titles.

Email From Governor's Office

 

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David explained to me that the Texas Kei enthusiasts contacted and collaborated with their lawmakers all over the state, even reaching the top at the office of Governor Greg Abbott. They also contacted the Texas DMV, presenting solid arguments for why Kei trucks should be legal. The Texas Kei Truck Advocates approached the DMV armed with a multi-page document (click here) explaining what Kei trucks are, how they’re different than 25 mph-limited mini trucks, how the trucks are federally legal, and how banning these vehicles would negatively impact small businesses in the state.

The Texas DMV listened and agreed to review its policy banning Kei trucks. Lawmakers contacted by the Texas Kei Truck Advocates and by The Autopian also gave their helping hands to the cause. David admitted that this was risky. It was possible that all of this hard work could have resulted in the Texas DMV realizing that its county offices weren’t following the rules. The impact would have been a full ban. Something somewhat similar happened in Georgia when that state realized that some counties were still registering Kei vehicles.

…And Win

In a surprising twist, Texas didn’t clamp down on Kei trucks. Instead, its DMV decided to completely reverse its ban on Kei trucks. Now, a Honda Acty is just as legal in Texas as a Smart Fortwo. Our first solid confirmation of the change came from Texas State Representative Gene Wu, the Representative originally contacted by The Autopian.

Representative Gene Wu

Not long after the confirmation of the changes, the Texas DMV started sending letters to its offices, advising that Kei trucks will now be considered real motor vehicles and not off-road toys. Check it out:

Tejasletter

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I know the text might be too small on mobile, so click here to read the whole document. The first two paragraphs are the most important:

A mini vehicle includes a mini car, truck, van, and bus manufactured in a foreign country, most commonly in Japan, China, and India. The department previously determined mini vehicles were not eligible for title or registration. The department has re-evaluated the current policy and conferred with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) regarding safety considerations and inspection requirements. DPS determined that if the vehicle passes current inspection requirements the vehicle can be registered and operated on public roadways. As a result, the department has revised the titling and registration requirements for these vehicles.

Effective immediately, mini vehicles are required to be titled and must be registered if operated on public roadways…

What happened here? A number of states that have banned Kei vehicles didn’t actually codify it in law but rather as a DMV policy. While states like Maine changed their laws to exclude imports, some states, like Rhode Island, didn’t change any laws and instead just reinterpreted existing laws. I couldn’t find a Texas law that specifically banned Kei trucks, but Texas did have a longstanding department policy that effectively banned Kei trucks.

So, Texans didn’t have to get a law changed. Instead, they had to convince the state government to reverse its policy. That’s not to diminish the achievement here, because what Texas won is still incredible. Now, Texans can confidently register a Kei truck as they would any other car. That truck can then drive on Texas roads just like any other car.

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Texas Kei Truck Advocates

However, there is one more problem that I did not mention in the last piece. Because this was done through a policy, it also means that a future Texas government could, in theory, reinstate the Kei truck ban. So, the Texas Kei Truck Advocates aren’t done yet. Now, they will continue to advocate for Kei trucks through education while also fighting to get a law on the books legalizing imports like Kei trucks.

The Texas win is also spreading across America. I’m told advocacy group chapters are sprouting up in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Maine. These groups will be following the Texas lead of fighting for change by motivating lawmakers. We’ll be watching their progress and hopefully, enthusiasts can replicate the success found in North Carolina in 2019 and Texas today.

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I’ve reached out to the AAMVA for comment on Texas, as well as its guidance on imported vehicle bans. I will update if I hear back.

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EricTheViking
EricTheViking
1 month ago

Interestingly, we brought our 1977 Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL to the United States in 1982 and had no trouble titling the car despite not meeting the FMVSS.

I feel that AAMVA is committing the RICO violations in regard of “regulating what we can sell and buy” by sending the “threatening letters” to the states. That could also apply to Mercedes-Benz USA for initiating the legislature, “Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act” in 1987, which more or less killed the grey imports.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 month ago

I don’t think even Ann Richards would have reversed this.

Last edited 1 month ago by Theotherotter
Classy Jalopy
Classy Jalopy
1 month ago

Having grown up riding and some times driving these KEI cars, I know they are objectively unsafe vehicles. God forbid you find yourself in a head on accident or a high speed crash. Most occupants will likely die since there are no strengthened cabin structures or crumple zones anywhere. Many of them don’t even have airbags either. There should be some way to at least restrict their use to roads with 25 MPH or under speed limits

I understand the counter argument that older cars are not safe in crash either but IMO they are grand fathered in eventhough they are unsafe as well. This shouldn’t encourage us to introduce more unsafe death traps to our roads.

Steve P
Steve P
1 month ago

So now can one argue that removing the 25 year requirement would be better because new Kei vehicles are probably slightly safer and more fuel efficient?

Taxi maniac
Taxi maniac
1 month ago

This is the funniest preview picture in automotive journalism history.

Whoever came up with it is my hero

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
1 month ago

This jumped out at me:

Among other things, the organization seeks standardization of laws across member states regarding traffic safety, vehicle titling, and driver licensing.

(Emphasis added.)

Traffic safety: Makes sense for state administrators to share ideas and best practices for traffic safety.Driver licensing: Class A and B licensing is consistent across the states now, which is a Good Thing. I would like to see harmony across the states for Class C licenses, too.Vehicle Titling: Huh. Titles have nothing to do with safety. Who benefits from standardized vehicle titling? Oh, wait a minute.. national car dealers. Hmm.Who benefits from a Kei car ban? Car dealers. Maybe, just maybe the AAMVA is composed of motor vehicle administrators and law enforcement administrators, but I would be interested to know how the AAMVA is funded and what portion, if any comes from national car dealer organizations and manufacturers.

[/conspiracy]

Last edited 1 month ago by OverlandingSprinter
Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago

I am really not used to the concept of government being reasonable and doing things that make sense, and, frankly, it scares me a little bit, I prefer it when the world remains in a familiar form I can understand.

Also, its kind of too bad this didn’t happen in California, since the rest of the country loves to copy them, especially the Northeastern states where the anti-kei nonsense all started, which like to pretend they’re cold, rainy mini-Californias, Texas doesn’t seem to be as much of a trend setter, generally.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
1 month ago

At the risk of sounding repetitive, no vehicle built prior to the 1/1/1968 adoption of the FMVSS is legal to be registered under this law. You have a fully-restored 1964.5 Mustang? Sorry, champ, you can’t register it.

GumpertApolloGuy
GumpertApolloGuy
1 month ago

Wow for once the shit state of Texas makes a good call? Surprising

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
1 month ago

The entire argument of “this isn’t safe” because it isn’t FMVSS approved is absurd on 25 year old vehicles. How many of us are familiar with rusting in half vehicles from the midwest that are less than 25 years old? Its a policy argument, not a factual argument. “Its unsafe because no govt agency ever said it was safe, not because its actually unsafe.”

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 month ago

Yay 😀

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
1 month ago

This is great. Good luck to all the kei enthusiasts in the other egreiged states.

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