Sticker Shock

Bad glue days at TxDOT

Sticker Shock
Illustration By Doug Potter

The Texas Department of Transportation has apparently stuck it to Texas motorists with the agency's recent redesign of the windshield sticker for renewing automobile registration tags. The windshield stickers completely replace the license-plate tags once required of Texas drivers, which were subject to widespread theft because of their accessibility, and also offer the additional security of association with a specific vehicle. Unfortunately, the experience of attempting to apply the new decal to actual windshields has left plenty of drivers feeling unglued. The new stickers are larger in format, often difficult to punch out and apply correctly – and many drivers have complained that they simply won't stick to the glass.

Local officials charged with administering the registration tags are equally unenthusiastic. Travis Co. Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears told the Austin American-Statesman bluntly, "It's a nightmare." A few days earlier, Spears' counterpart in El Paso, Victor Flores, told the El Paso Times, "Personally, I don't think enough research went into the development of these stickers. I understand why people are complaining. They pay a lot of money and are getting an inferior product."

It's not clear why the sticker glue was changed at all, although the project to update the decals themselves has been in the works for several years. In 1999, the Legislature enacted an automated registration and title system for TxDOT, and the agency began to look at different ways to produce what are called "point of sale" stickers. Under the system in place until 2004, TxDOT preprinted stickers en masse and distributed them to each county. But that system allowed sticky-fingered thieves a window of opportunity to steal unused stickers, which could be sold illegally because they were not designated for specific vehicles. David Pyndus, a spokesperson for TxDOT's Vehicle Titles and Registration Division, says that by introducing a system that printed out a unique sticker based on the car and driver, the agency could deter sticker theft and streamline the state's inventory control.

Unfortunately, whatever the merits of the revised system, the new sticker paper is sometimes inadequate for the job of adhering to vehicle windshields. Pyndus says a fix for this fixative may be in the works – TxDOT is looking at different kinds of adhesives and is working with its vendor on a possible redesign. "It's possible the sticker may be redesigned," he says. "We just don't know how yet."

Pyndus says TxDOT has been aware of the problems and even had to deal with defective inventory. A June 24 memo from TxDOT to all county tax assessor-collectors announced: 1) a defect with the silicone patch (adhesive buffer) on the back of some point-of-sale forms; 2) a problem with the die-cutting process resulting in stickers not being effectively perforated; and 3) a discovery that some forms were manufactured without plate stickers (which are still necessary for motorcycles and trailers, but read "void" on most automobile forms).

Pyndus says the agency was able to dispose of the defective inventory before it was distributed but, he adds, if anyone believes a sticker is defective, he or she should return to the county tax assessor-collector and report it; defective stickers should be replaced free of charge.

The sticker backlash recalls, albeit more quietly, the widespread criticism generated in 1993 when the Legislature changed the rules requiring renewal of tags. Under the old system, motorists put a sticker on their license plates, but since the stickers were on the outside of the car, they were easier to steal. But when the shift was made to windshield stickers, critics worried that thieves would break windshields, and that the stickers obstructed the view of the road. These haven't turned out to be widespread problems, although this year's new, larger stickers are again being criticized for obstructing too much of the driver's view.

On a related note, beginning Sept. 1, drivers in Travis and Williamson counties will be subject to an emissions test when they try to acquire the other sticker on their windshield – for the required annual safety inspection. Because of the added test, the cost will rise to as much as $28.50 (the current inspection alone is $12.50) and will be required of all gas-powered vehicles between 2 and 24 years old.

One potential controversy has been sidestepped, at least for the moment. Had it passed, House Bill 2893 in the 79th Legislature would have embedded all vehicle inspection tags with radio frequency identification technology, in theory allowing police to track every single registered vehicle on the road. If that bill ever becomes law, the public outcry over defective sticker glue will seem like a faint whisper, indeed.

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state governmenttransportation, TxDOT, registration stickers, Nelda Wells Spears, Victor Flores, David Pyndus

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