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Getting Wheels

March 26, 2012

If you live in Florida, you need a car.  It’s technically possible to get around by public transportation in South Florida, but it’s not something that most people with unimpaired vision and a bank account would want to attempt.

So you will need to place yourself at the mercy of the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles office.  Actually, it’s not as awful as that might sound, but there are some peculiarities that you might not expect.

For starters, you can’t just decide to waste a day in DMV hell and show up at the nearest office.  You will need an appointment.  In theory, that sounds like a good time-saving idea, but it might take quite a while to get one.  In my case, it took an entire month between the time I went on line to make an appointment and the first available time slot.  (The wait times reportedly vary from one office to another.)  They tell you furthermore not to arrive more than 15 minutes before your appointment time.  (Slight clarification:  I understand there are some offices that accept walk-ins, but it’s not at all easy to find out which ones those are.)

On the appointed day, I gathered up the documentation specified in the somewhat-confusing official website and the somewhat less confusing unofficial one and headed out to the North Dade Justice Center.  After Mortal Kombat in the parking lot to grab a vacant spot, I spent another 10 minutes or so to go through the metal detector, presented my papers, did the eye test, and within 30 minutes was out of there with my new Florida driver’s license.  And I had registered to vote to boot.  So, not bad.

But I wasn’t quite done yet.  In other places I have lived, you would get your tags at the same location you get your driver’s  license—at the DMV.  In Florida, however, you have to go elsewhere—to a licensed private agency of the tax collector’s office, where you apply for the car title and tags.  (There’s probably a story there about how this system came about, but I don’t know what it is.)

And you have to pay in cash.  Fortunately, there is a handy ATM right there in the agency, so you can contribute a few golden crumbs to whoever owns the machine.  And then, voilà, you’re a Florida driver.

However, I kept having a nagging feeling that something was missing.  Then I realized that there had been no vehicle inspection.  So I went back on line and discovered that inspections had been discontinued in Florida in 2000.  So no mechanical inspection, no emissions test, no nothing.  Apparently you can drive around in any smoke-belching piece of crap you like, although I did see something that said in certain counties, including Miami-Dade, you can report a seriously polluting car—just not sure to whom

Of course, you will need to have auto insurance.  But be prepared to see your rates go up.  When I called my insurance carrier of 40+ years (USAA) to switch my coverage from DC to Florida, I fully expected my rates to go down.  After all, in DC I had been parking on the street in a none-too-posh inner city neighborhood at the center of a large metropolitan area, and in Florida I was in a nice safe suburban neighborhood and had a locked garage to put my car in.  But instead, my rate quote was about 40 percent higher.  I asked the agent why that was the case, and he told me:  hurricanes and fraud.  Oh.

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