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Texas DMV halts revocation of titles, will form group to study dune buggy legality

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Photo by Casey Maxon, courtesy Historic Vehicle Association.

After an extensive lobbying effort by dune buggy and kit car owners, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has put a halt to revoking dune buggy titles and will launch an official working group charged with evaluating the thicket of state and federal regulations regarding assembled vehicles.

As Jeremiah Kuntz, the director of vehicle titles and registration for the department, told the department’s board of directors at its quarterly meeting Thursday morning, the array of statutes, regulations, and administrative rules regarding the titling of dune buggies – on both the state and federal levels – is far more complex than it initially seems.

At the heart of the issue, Kuntz pointed out, is the fact that Texas Administrative Rule 217.3 (6) – adopted as early as April 2014 – specifically prohibits the titling and licensing of dune buggies even though “there’s no current definition” for dune buggies and “there’s no easy way to define” them.

“There are various iterations,” Kuntz said. “Each and every case must be taken on its own merit and depends on how the vehicle was manufactured and when it was manufactured.”

In addition to petitions from about 180 dune buggy and kit car enthusiasts, the Texas DMV has also fielded inquiries into the matter from at least 21 state legislators.

Faron Smith, the Texan dune buggy enthusiast who organized the petition drive after a recent spate of dune buggy and kit car title revocations, told the Texas DMV board that he and his fellow dune buggy owners are “hobbyists, the same as anybody else out there who wants to build their dream” and that they are all for reasonable safety guidelines that allow dune buggies to be titled and driven. “We don’t want Frankencars out on the road – we want safety guidelines,” he said.

Along with the almost infinite variety of dune buggy configurations and conflicting Texas state laws regarding the titling of custom vehicles, street rods, and replica vehicles, Kuntz said he and his staff researching the issue also contended with dozens of individual National Highway Traffic Safety Administration interpretations and opinions issued in response to individuals seeking clarity on dune buggy legality as far back as 1968.

“Those interpretations changed over time… and the letters built up on each other,” he said, citing one opinion that stated that any vehicle manufactured for use on public roads must meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards while another opinion would apply those safety standards to any person installing an engine and transmission in a kit car.

Largely, he said, “the NHTSA is very concerned with the vehicle’s chassis and brakes and less concerned with the vehicle’s original body. If somebody were to chop a chassis in half and weld it back together to shorten it, the NHTSA is concerned, but if the body and chassis were separated, then the chassis were later united with some other body, then the NHTSA seems to have no problem.”

In addition to probing NHTSA opinions on the matter, Kuntz also presented a 2015 survey of individual state DMV approaches to dune buggies. According to the survey (which only received responses from 28 states) three states – Texas, Alabama, and Oregon – specifically make dune buggies ineligible for title and registration, 13 states only issue titles and registration if the individual vehicle meets FMVSS, two only issue titles to dune buggies, four only title dune buggies for off-road use, and six allow dune buggies to be titled and registered for on-road use.

Of those, Kuntz addressed the title-only approach, which he said would be inadequate. “If the ultimate goal is to operate the vehicle on the roadway and the title doesn’t allow that, then why go through the process?” he asked.

As for how dune buggy and other kit car titles were approved and singled out for revocation, Kuntz said that county DMV office administrators regularly add new vehicle makes and models into the department’s computer system and that he and other DMV officials in Austin regularly review those new submissions and revoke titles for vehicles “that do not meet our standards.”

Kuntz said the DMV is not currently revoking dune buggy or kit car titles.

Any owners who feel their vehicle’s title was revoked in error should first contact the DMV and request a staff review, according to David Duncan, the department’s general counsel. As a last recourse, they can then file a title suit against the department.

Ron Hinkle, the lobbyist who Smith and other dune buggy enthusiasts hired to plead their case with the DMV, argued that in the short term that any titles revoked under Texas Administrative Rule 217.3 (6) should be reinstated. In the long term, he recommended that DMV officials work with state legislators to provide clarity and better definitions to dune buggy and kit car owners.

“The world is watching to see where Texas goes with this,” he said.

The DMV board did not take any immediate action on creating the working group.