The Cayman Islands Department of Vehicle and Drivers’ Licensing repeatedly failed to perform one of its most basic functions properly, contravening the Traffic Law and costing the public purse millions in uncollected fees, the Cayman Compass can reveal.
According to an October 2016 report from the government’s Internal Audit Service made public after an open records request filed by the Compass: “We concluded that the department was in contravention of the Traffic Law as [it] did not properly maintain the register of motor vehicles and drivers.”
The audit findings reveal, in large part, the reasons the government decided to switch to an electronic vehicle registration system this year, requiring that some 45,000 vehicles change from the old yellow-orange colored sheet metal plates to the new, white electronic plates. The change is expected to be complete by the end of 2019.
Despite the department stating its intention to replace some 45,000 plates, auditors found DVDL records indicated that more than 74,000 vehicles were on the register in mid-2015 and more than 63,500 drivers’ licenses were recorded. Of the more than 74,000 vehicle registrations, just more than half related to vehicles with expired tags or those for which the department had no licensing details at all, the audit service reported.
More than 25,000 vehicles had “expired” registrations, some of them which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s and 1990s. Thousands of those vehicles on the department’s records expired after Hurricane Ivan struck the islands in 2004, rendering a large number of cars inoperable.
According to auditors, no one at the department terminated these registrations and it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, in 2015 to determine whether the vehicles were still being driven. Although many of the vehicles – particularly during the Hurricane Ivan period – were no longer being driven, some of them would be driven.
“The department does not terminate registration of vehicles for which licenses have expired for a continuous period of three years … terminations of vehicle registrations only occur upon the request of registered owners,” auditors stated.
The Department of Vehicle and Drivers’ Licensing had assessed, but not collected, about $14.9 million in vehicle registrations and unpaid drivers’ license fees over a period of years, according to auditors’ estimates. Almost all of that amount, about $14 million, was owed in vehicle registration fees.
In its response to the audit, DVDL management stated it had a responsibility to inform vehicle owners in advance that their registrations or licenses were being terminated and that its present resources simply do not allow for that. Attempts to use the government’s debt recovery unit to collect unpaid registration fees also failed because of lack of staff.
The new electronic vehicle registrations will allow the DVDL to maintain up-to-date vehicle and licensing records, department officials told auditors.
The department “will assess” vehicles with expired registrations between 1985 and 2011 (before the current Traffic Law came into force) to remove them from the register. However, it noted there is “no mechanism” to collect any outstanding registration or licensing fees owed before 2012.
Auditors noted that since the department does not automatically terminate vehicle registrations, the amount owed could be “overstated” if a significant number of the older vehicles had been taken off the road. However, if those cars were driven without proper registration for any length of time, auditors noted: “It makes it more unlikely that DVDL will be able to collect these amounts.”
The Compass reported in February that the government had spent $1.5 million on the new electronic licensing system. The government started switching out license plates in May.
The number plates and the windscreen coupons are fitted with Radio-Frequency Identification chips – computer chip/antenna devices that can store relatively small amounts of information. “They may simply be scanned by authorities, with only insurance and other vehicle particulars available to system users,” DVDL Director David Dixon said at the time. The immediate access to the registration and licensing information from the scan would make it much easier to determine if the vehicle is being operated illegally, Mr. Dixon said.
One practical law enforcement use for the new technology could be in the area of traffic stops initiated by police. For instance, an officer using an electronic plate-reading device at a roadblock could immediately scan and receive information that reveals whether the vehicle is registered or not. At present, officers must pull over the vehicle, check license and registration and contact the 911 Emergency Centre by radio to obtain the data.
Mr. Dixon said there would be no change in the present data exchange process between the RCIPS and the DVDL in regard to prosecuting someone for expired tags or failure to register their vehicle. Under the Traffic Law, the police must make a request to extract the information and receive a certificate of validity from the DVDL, a process that takes up to three days.
Ministry of Planning officials said there are other options for using the technology in the future, including putting electronic transmitters on stop lights or power poles to scan vehicle registrations. Those devices can tell system users where a vehicle was at a given time and date, but placing those scanners in enough places to physically track a vehicle as it traverses the island is considered cost-prohibitive at present.
The Cayman Compass contacted DVDL Director Dixon, senior ministry officials and Deputy Governor Franz Manderson regarding the internal audit’s findings, seeking answers to additional questions arising from the report, but received no response by press time Monday.
The department’s responses to the internal audit findings are included in the story.