With cities from Dallas to St. Louis joining a growing list of states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and probably more by the time you read this — in ordering businesses deemed nonessential to close or residents to stay home in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, motorists may wonder how that affects regulatory deadlines. Even a global pandemic can’t stop the clock on expiration dates for driver’s licenses, vehicle plates, emissions certifications, vehicle registration and other regulatory requirements — but in many cases, it can slow it down.
If you’re in an area that has imposed closures on nonessential businesses or issued shelter-in-place (more recently dubbed “stay at home”) orders, is it legal or safe to take care of such business? Are facilities where you could make such transactions — from the department of motor vehicles to your local emissions-test facility — even open?
It depends where you live. Facilities are generally closed in states with the most aggressive restrictions, but in almost all examples we observed, such states have granted extensions on numerous deadlines. And many DMVs offer services, such as renewing certain licenses or requesting driving records, online instead of in person.
We’ve previously explored how orders to stay at home or close nonessential businesses can impact buying a car and servicing it. Now we’ll look at the regulatory requirements that come with vehicle ownership. We’ll try to answer questions below, but bear in mind that the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 change by the day. The information below is current at the time of publication, but check with your state’s department of motor vehicles for the most up-to-date information.
Is My DMV Still Open During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
If your state has ordered businesses to close or residents to stay at home, probably not. California says its DMVs will serve in-person customers by appointment only, but the state had no appointments available as of this writing. In Michigan, all Secretary of State offices, including the DMV, will be closed from March 24 through at least April 13. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles says it’s keeping eight facilities open from March 18 until further notice. New York’s DMVs are closed statewide and, on March 20, Gov. Andrew Cuomo canceled all in-person DMV appointments until further notice. Pennsylvania closed its centers for driver’s licenses and photo licenses for at least two weeks starting March 16, while Illinois closed all Secretary of State offices and driver-services facilities until April 7. New Jersey’s motor vehicle commission agencies, road testing and inspection facilities, are closed until March 30; Connecticut’s DMVs are closed until further notice. You get the idea.
Such closures, in full or in part, even extend to areas under comparatively less stringent restrictions. Colorado’s DMVs are “closed to public contact” from March 18 to April 20 even as the state has reportedly stopped short of a stay-at-home order as of this writing.
What If I Have a Task Requiring an In-Person Visit?
Your state has likely extended such deadlines or added lenience around enforcing them. Pennsylvania extended to April 30 any vehicle registrations, driver’s licenses, photo IDs and learner’s permits that expired in late March. New York extended deadlines for licenses, non-driver identifications and registrations that expired March 1 or later, according to its website; until when ultimately is unclear, but the governor’s order — which suspends the extent to which statewide traffic law “provides for a period of validity and expiration of a driver’s license” — is effective until April 19. Illinois extended expiration dates for driver’s licenses, ID cards, vehicle registrations and other transactions until 30 days after a statewide disaster proclamation ends. Massachusetts is using a ticket system on a first-come, first-served basis “with priority given to those customers with transactions that cannot be completed online”; licenses expiring between March 1 and April 30 will be granted a 60-day extension. New Jersey and Connecticut have among the broadest extension: Driver’s licenses, non-driver IDs, vehicle registrations and inspection stickers expiring before May 31 will get a two-month extension, according to New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commision, while Connecticut is granting 90-day extensions for a host of DMV-related items. Colorado is permitting counties to waive late fees for vehicle registration and extend certain license expirations by 60 days.
California’s approach leaves room for interpretation. A March 16 press release from the state’s DMV directs law enforcement to “exercise discretion for 60 days in their enforcement of driver license and vehicle registration expiration dates beginning March 16, 2020.” The release continues that officers are “encouraged to exercise flexibility and discretion” around such dates, and that “if applicable, [the] DMV may waive vehicle registration penalties.” Asked why California didn’t grant mandatory or automatic extensions on such deadlines, as other states did, the department did not immediately clarify.
What About Emissions Testing or Safety Inspections?
Some states require emissions tests (sometimes called smog tests), safety tests or both. In many cases, deadlines have also been moved. Depending on your vehicle’s sticker, Massachusetts has extended emissions tests by two months to the end of either May or June. Pennsylvania extended any emissions tests and safety inspections due March 16-31; they’re now due by the end of April. Illinois, which suspended emissions testing through April 7, notes that a 30-day extension on vehicle registration means owners have that much longer to get such tests. Connecticut has extended deadlines for emissions tests by 90 days for deadlines from March 10 through June 8.
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California’s emissions tests, called smog tests, are required every other year as part of vehicle registration. The state’s Bureau of Automotive Repair oversees the program, but the bureau’s offices closed on March 20 until further notice due to COVID-19.
For drivers who need a smog test to renew their vehicle registration, the California BAR posted online that it “advises consumers to file their DMV paperwork, including all required DMV fees, even if they have not received their Smog Check certificate. Once state and local orders or directives are no longer in effect, consumers can then obtain the required Smog Check certificate and complete the DMV vehicle registration process.” Asked if any formal directive exists to extend deadlines for such tests, BAR did not immediately respond to Cars.com.
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