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Antique plate use soaring in RI since lawmakers loosened rules

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – For antique car hobbyists, a 1941 Cadillac 60 Special isn’t in the same class as a 1994 Honda Civic. But under Rhode Island state law, the two can be considered one and the same.

A little-noticed law enacted in 2014 expanded the allowed uses of antique cars – defined as vehicles aged 25 years and older – to let people drive them for reasons other than exhibitions, parades and club activities. That gave Rhode Island more relaxed rules on antiques than neighboring states.

A Target 12 investigation reveals the looser restrictions – championed by Sen. Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick – have led to rapid growth in the number of antique license plate registrations in Rhode Island.

Data provided to Target 12 by the R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles shows the number of active antique license plates has grown 52% to 13,456 since the law took effect in 2014, equaling about 2% of all passenger plates across the state. That pace of growth is more than double the 22% increase seen over the same length of time in the years before the law was changed.

Target 12 also discovered many of the vehicles now being registered are mass-produced makes and models from recent decades that you’re unlikely to see in a classic car show.

More than half the 2,197 cars registered as antiques this year were manufactured between 1980 and 1994, according to the DMV. And about a quarter were made between 1990 and 1994, including 15 Honda Civics, nine Honda Accords and a Subaru Legacy.

While the reasons for the rapid growth might be varied, there are clear financial and regulatory benefits to registering a car as an antique. It is cheaper to register an antique car than a typical vehicle, and owners can ignore safety and emissions inspections.

McCaffrey said he pushed the change in order to give antique car enthusiasts more opportunity to show off their cars, not for people to use older cars on a regular basis.

“That’s not the spirit of the law at all,” he said.

The rising number of antique plates is raising eyebrows among antique car hobbyists like Sal Lombardi, a Scituate resident who has invested 50 years of time and money into the hobby.

“Is the vehicle special? That’s the whole thing,” Lombardi said. “How can you say that a Honda or Toyota where they made 250 million of in that year, how can that be special?”

“Most of those cars are in the junkyard,” Lombardi added. “They’re doing it to avoid the costly registration of the vehicle.”

McCaffrey’s bill passed the Senate on June 11, 2014, about three months after he introduced it; a House companion bill was introduced the following day by Rep. Joe Shekarchi, another Warwick Democrat, and passed in less than a week. Then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bills into law in early July.

Asked whether he thought 1990s-vintage Civics and Accords should qualify as antiques, McCaffrey emphaized that even before his bill passed state law allowed cars to be registered as antiques once they reached 25 years old.

“Sometimes you see newer cars at antique car shows,” he said.

James St. Onge, a Bristol resident who owns a Toyota Celica from the 1980s, has kept the car in pristine condition since he bought it brand-new 30 years ago. But he’s upfront about why he chose to register the car as an antique.

“You get more incentives,” he told Target 12.

The cost of registering an antique car in Rhode Island is $5, which pales in comparison to the typical registration cost of $60 to $2,568, depending on the weight of the vehicle. (The heavier the car, the greater the cost.)

If the owners of each of the 13,456 antique car paid $5 today, the state would collect about $67,000. If each paid $60 — the minimum biannual cost for passenger cars weighing up to 4,000 pounds — the state would collect $807,360.

And some of the vehicles being registered as antiques weigh much more than 4,000 pounds: last year three separate 1991 BMY M92 series military cargo trucks, each with an estimated curb weight of 21,000 pounds, got antique plates.

As antique vehicles, the registration cost would total $15 for the fleet; without the designation, the cost would be $1,164, according to a DMV fee schedule. 

And the cost savings extend beyond registration.

The average premium to insure an antique car totals about $300 per year, according to Peter Sacchetti of Sacchetti Insurance Agency in Warwick.

By comparison, the average Rhode Island driver with a clean record will pay about $1,500 for car insurance in 2019, according to an analysis by the personal finance website NerdWallet.com. For drivers with one at-fault crash, the cost could total upwards of $2,600 for the year.

Sacchetti, who says he insures a large portion of classic and specialty automobiles market in New England, said he’s witnessed the hobby become much more popular in recent decades. But he expects some people are taking advantage of the financial breaks, making his job as a risk assessor more challenging.

He also offered a warning to those who might be using their antique cars on a regular basis. 

“A lot of people in our state – if they can finagle a way around paying big money for something – they’ll thrown an antique plate on a car,” Sacchetti said. “Who doesn’t want to save money? But you might as well be putting it down the toilet and flushing because the protection isn’t going to be there if you have any losses while using it as an everyday vehicle.”

Use the slider tool below to compare the two ‘antique’ cars

Antique car owners also don’t have to pass inspection, known officially as a “safety and emissions” test, which costs $55 and is designed to “ensure that the vehicles operating on the Rhode Island roadways are safe and environmentally clean,” according to the DMV.

The inspection exemption might make sense for a 1941 Cadillac 60 Special, which was manufactured in an era when safety requirements were scant. But the rationale is less clear applied to cars manufactured in 1994, when many of the safety requirements were the same as today.

The older cars join an ever-growing number of vehicles aged 25 years and older that are exempt from the emissions standards, which exist in part to help curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently, the transportation sector is Rhode Island’s No. 1 contributor of such emissions, according to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. DEM spokesperson Michael Healey said the department is planning to work with DMV to determine how many antique cars were registered, “to get a better sense of their associated emissions.”

Looking forward, McCaffrey said the DMV — which took no position on his bill in 2014 — should look into citing people who are using the plates full-time.

“If law enforcement has concerns, we’d certainly be willing to look at it and change it to address those concerns,” he said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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