The Not-So-Normal (or My Experience with the Virginia DMV)

I was going to take a few days off from writing when this morning I did something that prompted me to reconsider:
I took my car to get its Virginia Safety Inspection.

That probably does not sound like much, but here is the thing: this is the first time I have ever done it!

I am not one to blurt out my age but suffice to say I am no spring chicken. I would expect most Americans my age would have done this a dozen times or more in their adult lives. Yet here I am doing this for the very first time. I was so nervous! I tossed and turned the night before worrying about it. My aunt accompanied me to the inspection center. I could not focus I was so nervous and excited on the way there and while waiting. Also when I paid, the cashier gave me a strange look and repeated “This is YOUR first time?” Clearly he was doubtful.

Look, I grew up in suburban Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC. We did not move around. I did the things most suburban kids do. However, as an adult, I have spent 12 years outside of the United States. Only the last two have been with the State Department. I studied for a summer and semester in China in college. I taught English in Korea for a year. I taught English in Japan for three years. I spent a semester studying and volunteering in Manila. I spent a year backpacking through Europe and Asia. I spent twelve months pursuing a Masters Degree in Singapore with two months before and two months after backpacking abroad. Three months studying in Yogyakarta and later two and a half years working for Defense in Jakarta, Indonesia. So I missed out on activities like watching Friends before it was in re-runs and having my car inspected.

Besides being nervous about doing something bureaucratically important for the first time I had two more reasons to be concerned: childhood memory and my unfortunate recent experiences with the Virginia DMV.

My aunt told me it was an easy enough process but as a child I watched my father have his vehicles rejected by the safety inspector again and again. There was the VW bug that was missing the floor on the front passenger side. I remember him driving me to dance class watching my legs dangle over the empty space as we bumped over the gravel road. Also the Datsun, whose starting system he rigged with a creative button that my mom had to use two hands to start. The Dodge Caravan, whose dented bumper and side he corrected with duct tape. After all both the duct tape and the car were silver. The VW bus my mom had to slow down, but not stop, to let us out at Middle School. I remember many a day sitting sweltering by the side of the road awaiting repairs or the times I had to, as the oldest child, get out of the car and push.

So there was that….

And also the drama the Virginia DMV put me through during my time in Mexico. It’s a long story that I will try to explain, because I think it sheds light on some of the problems Foreign Service Officers go through.

When I purchased my car in September 2011 I contacted State Farm for insurance. I told them from the get go I would be moving to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico the following year, approximately nine months later. I asked if they would cover me in Mexico. I was told “No problem.” A few months before departure, I stopped by the office and spoke with the head agent. I was again informed there would be no problem. About a week before departure I called and let them know the departure was imminent. It took some checking, but again I was reassured – we got you covered. Then just hours before I am to start driving to Mexico the office calls and tells me, hey, I see you are moving to Mexico. There is NO WAY we can cover you. My initial response could not be called diplomatic, but I stopped by the office, spoke with someone else, and once again was told, yeah, we have an office in El Paso with a Mexican Team. I’ll send your information there–no problem.

A concurrent issue that happened was my change in address. When I first returned from Indonesia, I was placed in Oakwood Falls Church housing, a common place for new and seasoned officers and their families to be housed during training. Unfortunately, I was assigned an un-renovated apartment. Though, I was informed at check in this would not be an issue, four months later and six months pregnant, I was required to move down the hall to another, already renovated apartment. Two months after that I had to move out of that apartment after giving birth, as I had been informed State would not cover my housing (that turned out to be incorrect, but discovered long after it would have helped me). Six weeks after that I moved back to Oakwood. Four months after that I moved to Mexico. I filled out a forwarding address form with the post office…

I then find myself in Juarez and the State Farm office in El Paso ducks my calls and an in-office visit for a few weeks before admitting they cannot cover me. So I purchase a Mexican insurance policy through a much-used international insurance company that also covers me temporarily, up to 90 days in the US. I think all is well…

Until I contact the Virginia DMV in February 2013 to enquire how to renew my registration/tags from my location (I still have Virginia plates as we live on the border and cross frequently). I am told, “No problem, you can do that online; however, we must inform you your license has been suspended.” What?! Turns out that because the DMV contacted me for insurance information and I did not respond within the allotted time I am now suspended, face a $145 reinstatement fee and a possible $500 fine.

I am stunned. I call. I fax in my travel orders, a copy of my diplomatic passport and visa, my Mexican diplomatic card, and my insurance documents. No dice. Though my vehicle is not garaged in or driven in Virginia, my insurance does not meet Virginia requirements. The fees and fine stand. I appeal. During my appeal process my license is reinstated and I register my tags. In late October, I receive notification that my telephone hearing has been scheduled. Failure to take part results in a reinstatement of my suspension and the fees. The date of my hearing? One week BEFORE I received the notification! I am stunned yet again. I call. They put together a hearing right then and there. I am asked questions for approximately 30 minutes and then fax in all the previous documentation again. I am told to wait 3-4 weeks as the result of the hearing will be mailed to me…

I win!

After 11 or 16 months, depending on when you decide my ordeal began, I am through it and I have won. Yippee!
Given all of this, I think you would understand why I approach dealing with any and all Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle issues with extreme trepidation.

I cannot begin to tell you the immense relief I felt when my car passed the inspection with flying colors! No driving around with my 8/2012 sticker waiting for a ticket, no expensive repairs. Whew!

I have now completed my first Virginia vehicle safety inspection! Six months from now I will sell the car and we move back overseas and I do not know next when I will own a car. Such is the life of a Foreign Service Officer!

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