Nov 7, 2010

Making A Miserable Experience Worse

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

I've lived in Minnesota for almost a dozen years. You'd think that would be long enough for me to remember some of the dumber things about buying a motorcycle here, but you'd be disappointed. In my defense, I don't buy a lot of motorcycles; three in a dozen years. Almost every time I venture, title in hand, to the local DMV I get reminded that Minnesota pretends to record and track engine numbers. I've lived in a collection of places--Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, California, Indiana, and Colorado--and Minnesota is the only place that has asked me for my engine number. Why do they care about the engine numbers?

Now, we all know that the state can't hang on to Social Security numbers and our local police couldn't find a stolen Boeing 747 if it were parked on 35W. What do you think the chances are that a bored DPS bureaucrat would notice a reported-stolen engine number, track it to the original owner (the rare owner who bothered to report that engine stolen), and hand that information over to the police? Even more unlikely, what are the chances that a cop would pause from his busy parking-ticket-writing day to chase down the engine-stealing thief and ensure that justice is done? Better than a million-to-one? Probably not. I'd put better odds on my being able to count the stars in the Colorado sky before that scenario would occur.

The first time I was asked for my engine number, I was told that this little song-and-dance was instigated by the Harley garage candy crowd, since their ride is stolen and parted out more than any other vehicle on earth. The engine ID line on a motorcycle title was added to the form sometime in the 1970s, when stolen Harleys were more common than purchased bikes. A lot has changed since then, but we're all still paying the bureaucratic price for all those stolen chopper parts.

My most recent bike purchase was a 2000 Kawasaki Super Sherpa KL250. It's sort of an enduro, very much a multi-purpose small motorcycle, and probably most often spotted strapped to the back of a big RV. Of course, I forgot to note the number on the title before I brought it to the DMV. The clerk noted the missing number and tossed my paperwork back at me, noting that "Everybody forgets to get the engine number. Come back to the front of the line when you get it." I trudge out to the parking lot and spend a half hour looking all over the motor for the number. No number. I give up, ride home, and dig out the owner's manual.

The chances that someone would steal this bike for parts are slim-to-stupid. It's not worth enough to bother stealing, unless the thief needs money to buy a pack of cigarettes but doesn't need the money quickly. The owner's manual indicates that the engine number is stamped on the starter housing, a part that might be replaced when the electric starter dies. However, it's not there: it's under the starter, requiring the removal of the starter to read the number. I was lucky. A previous owner wrote the number in the owner's manual, so, rather than starting an unnecessary engine overhaul, I copied the number from the manual on to the line on the title. If that manual ever gets lost, I pity the fool who buys this motorcycle from me. Of course, I have no idea if it's the right number, since I was unable to find it on my own.

With the microscopic possibility that the police might identify and chase down a stolen motorcycle engine based on the serial number, the minor economic impact that a lost rat bike would have on an individual, and the thousands of lost hours from "everyone" having to quadruple the time necessary to register a motorcycle title due to forgetting to get the engine number, I think this is a stupid, obsolete law that should be reconsidered. Maybe the law could be modified so that only grossly expensive garage candy owners are obligated to crawl under their vehicles looking for non-existent numbers. Those bikes probably have the engine number printed when it can be found, though. Good for them. I, on the other hand, buy rat bikes and am about as inconvenienced by the engine number egg hunt as I would be by having my bike stolen. Any trip to the DMV is a miserable experience. Compounding the humiliation of paying sales tax on a vehicle whose previous owners have probably paid that same tax multiple times with groveling around my own motorcycle looking for a hidden number just adds to the pointless misery.

Here's an idea. Instead of ganging up on our legislators to battle laws that only affect the few, how about we get really mad about something that affects us all? Let's ride in mass to the capitol building to protest multiple taxation on used vehicles, road use restrictions on fuel efficient vehicles (like small displacement motorcycles and scooters), and if the DMV wants my engine number let them find it. If I were any less convinced that the state government could find a stolen motorcycle based on this identification, I'd doubt that they even have a department that attempts to find stolen vehicles. They do have a department that does that, don't they? Yeah, right.

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