The Iowa Department of Transportation has put a focus on automation and data collection to streamline and improve processes within the department. Most recently, the system used to track salvage vehicle inspections was moved from paper to electronic as part of this focus.
For many people, purchasing a vehicle that has been rebuilt after a significant crash is a cost-effective way to get a nicer car. However, sometimes vehicles can be rebuilt in ways that aren’t legal. As mandated by Iowa Code, the Iowa DOT’s Bureau of Investigations & Identity Protection, works to protect customers by physically inspecting rebuilt vehicles to make sure no stolen parts have been used as. To help get the job done, Iowa DOT investigators enlist the assistance of many partner law enforcement agencies around the state.
On the surface, the need to automate the process might not seem like a big deal, until you consider that 15,000 of these inspections are performed every year. Auto dealers and recyclers who sell salvage title vehicles are required to have these vehicles inspected by trained law enforcement officials before they can legally transfer the title to the purchaser of the vehicle. Typically sellers contact their local law enforcement to initiate the inspection process.
Until very recently, all documentation had been done using paper forms and either cash or checks were accepted as payment for this service. Each law enforcement agency was responsible to send the payment and documentation through the mail to the Iowa DOT. With smaller agencies being stretched thin, this valuable service was becoming a burden to some, making it more difficult for customers to be able to conduct this service locally.
“It was a very cumbersome process for everyone,” said Paul Steier, director of the Iowa DOT’s Bureau of Investigation & Identity Protection. “We have 75 city and county law enforcement agencies who perform these inspections. Until July, the fee for the inspection was $30, and the local agency paid $10 back to the state of which $5 goes to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. The remaining $20 really didn’t make it worth the effort for the local agency to complete a 30-minute inspection, mail the paperwork and payment back and forth through the mail to the Iowa DOT, and keep copies of the paperwork to track where each inspection was in the process.”
On the Iowa DOT side, one full-time employee was dedicated to processing the paperwork for salvage vehicle inspections. “It was just a very inefficient system,” said Steier. “Paper inspection reports and checks would come in and have to be processed manually. Several steps were needed to complete each transaction. In 2010, the state auditor determined this process was one with a potential for fraud, so we knew we needed to do something to reduce the fraud risk and, at the same time, improve customer service.”
Steier worked with staff within the Iowa DOT’s Motor Vehicle and Information Technology divisions, as well as a team of law enforcement partners and salvage recyclers to develop the automated system. He said, “I never visualized all the moving pieces to this puzzle. To get this done, we really did have to work as one team.
He said, “One of the first milestones was to give each partner law enforcement agency access to our vehicle registration database. This is the first time access to this database was granted to law enforcement agencies. Working with the staff in the Iowa DOT’s Office of Vehicle & Motor Carrier Services, we were able to get privacy agreements that allowed this to happen.”
Once database access was established, getting 230 officers from 75 different law enforcement agencies trained on the new system was another challenge. Steier said, “Luckily, we were able to use online tutorials to train the officers.”
With the officers onboard, the team faced a hurdle in coordinating, communicating with, and training dealers and recyclers to begin using the system to request inspections and make payments. Steier said, “We implemented this as a pilot project in early 2016. Once those partners were comfortable with the application, we rolled it out to a larger group of people who needed the service. By Sept. 1, all inspections in the state were done completely online.”
Everyone seems to be pleased with the new system. Neither the local agencies nor DOT staff have to handle payments manually. Processing the inspection results within the current vehicle system allows partner law enforcement staff to track their inspections much more efficiently. Steier said, “Another benefit both to our customers and to the county treasurer’s offices is that once the inspection is completed online by the officer, it is immediately available to the county treasurer’s office where the customer would go to apply for the vehicle’s title.”
Steier says from a record-keeping standpoint, there is no comparison between the manual and automated systems as far as efficiency. “Automating this system has freed up time for our vehicle services staff to focus on other priorities. It also helps the smaller law enforcement agencies because they don’t have to expend time and energy to process and track the paperwork and payments. Since all the documentation is held in a database, no paperwork gets lost in the shuffle and eliminating manual payment processing reduces the opportunities for errors and fraud. The system can also track whether an officer’s inspection training is current, allowing only currently trained officers to conduct and complete the inspections. That was something that was difficult to do in the past.”
The next step is to continue improving the process by analyzing the data being collected and making adjustments that may further increase efficiency and customer service.