DMV stalls on car-theft database

California is America’s No. 1 target for car thieves and car fraud. Some 257,000 automobiles were stolen in the state during 2005, and many of them return to market with fraudulent vehicle identification numbers.

Other vehicles illegally sold under fake ID might be dangerous “Frankenstein clones” haphazardly assembled out of parts salvaged from totaled cars, or even previously waterlogged autos from Hurricane Katrina. If terrorist car-bombing makes a U.S. comeback, the weapons of choice are likely to have been stolen.

More than ever, it is in the public interest to cut down on car theft and falsely identified vehicles. One way to help discourage the teeming underground network of chop shops, title washers and car cloning would be to make it easier to speedily authenticate VIN data.

As ithappens, Congress authorized the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System back in 1992. By now, 30 states have signed onto this database, which seeks to maintain accurate title information about as many cars as possible. The shared information would come from state motor vehicle departments, insurance companies and law enforcement agencies.

Yet surprisingly, California — with the greatest number of registered vehicles in the U.S. — is among the 20 states not participating in the national car-theft database. This decision does not sit well with the California Highway Patrol or local police departments.

The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice have literally pleaded with the California Department of Motor Vehicles to join the system. And a DMV representative freely acknowledges that the national database is a valid concept that offers substantial benefits as a consumer protection tool for identifying stolen vehicles.

The DMV’s rationale for not moving promptly to share its information online is that it only recently started a major effort to update its outmoded computer systems for licenses and registrations. The overhaul would supposedly prevent the department from joining the national database until 2010 at earliest.

Putting it bluntly, this excuse is neither convincing nor satisfying. It carries the suggestion of bureaucratic laziness and inertia. While converting the aging DMV software is indeed an admirable project, meanwhile, millions of California vehicle records are already in existence. And they should be uploaded to the national database without undue delay.

These existing California records might not be as accurate and current as they will be after the DMV computer conversion. But in terms of improving public safety, wouldn’t they be considerably better than nothing?

California admittedly has an overflowing complement of pressing budgetary needs. However, if the cost of entering DMV records into the national database is a barrier, wouldn’t the federal government — which now sees car theft as a homeland security issue and is pressing California to go online — be open to subsidizing the expense?

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