Who is Maine's vehicle inspection scheme actually protecting?
- By: Peter Zinn
Earlier this year, I noticed the annual inspection sticker on my car had expired the previous month. I didn’t feel guilty, of course — just paranoid. I was breaking state law, a fugitive behind the wheel, the evidence of my crime stuck to the windshield, hovering above my forehead for all to see.
So I drove the car to a state-licensed inspection station, which, for the purposes of this story, I’ll call Shop A.
The mechanic at Shop A told me I needed new axle boots and tie rod ends. It was understood that if I bought them from him, my car would pass inspection. Including parts and labor, the repairs came to $225, plus $18.50 for the inspection, so I told him to go ahead. But after the work was finished, the mechanic noticed my car’s airbag light had come on. The shop didn’t have the diagnostic equipment necessary to determine why the light was illuminated, so they were unable to give me a sticker after all. Worse, in accordance with another state law passed two years ago, the mechanic ripped my expired sticker in half, so cops could now more easily recognize my crime.
Enter the mechanic at Shop B. He switched off the airbag light for a mere $450, but then discovered I also needed new brake pads and rotors in order to pass inspection, and there were holes in the rear strut towers, he said. The estimate for the additional repairs: $700. I told the mechanic I didn’t have $700, then forked over $450 for the favor of having the airbag light turned off, along with another $18.50 for a second failed inspection, and headed to Shop C.
Shop C is the kind of garage most Mainers find themselves in at one desperate time or another: A compound of beat-up cars at the end of a dirt road, walls covered in grease and porn, and a calendar of the year 1978. There’s no waiting room at Shop C; the mechanic let me watch as he inspected my vehicle. He checked the brake lights and the turn signals, then put the car on a lift and made sure the wheels were screwed on tight. “Looks okay,” he said. “But I’d fix that oil leak if I were you.” He estimated that repair would cost about two hundred dollars, but passed my car without it, anyway. I told him if I ever do get the oil leak fixed, I’ll most assuredly have him do the job.
A week after leaving Shop C, my tailpipe broke in half. I headed to Meineke for a $185 patch job — the mechanic apparently didn’t notice any other problems — and three hours later, I was back on the road.
I know what you’re thinking: My car is an old junker held together with duct tape and bubblegum. In fact, I drive a late-model Subaru with around a hundred thousand miles, new tires, and brakes that are less than two years old.
And I know something else you’re probably thinking: The same thing happened to me! Of course, the details are different for everyone. But who hasn’t driven a vehicle that seemed to be in perfectly good condition to a garage for its annual inspection, only to be told the state considers you a menace to other motorists? And how many of you then went to another garage where the type and cost of the repairs needed to make your vehicle legal were different from the first?
Maine is among the shrinking minority of states that mandate annual or biannual safety inspections for passenger vehicles. Lawmakers in most states have repealed or significantly curtailed inspections in light of research that strongly suggests the programs are not a cost-effective way to reduce traffic accidents. Between 1980 and 1993, the number of states mandating annual inspections dropped from thirty to twenty-three. Today fourteen states require annual inspections, and four others (plus the District of Columbia) have biannual programs, according to the latest list compiled online.
Maine has had an inspection program of one kind or another since the 1940s. Prior to 1982, inspections were required every six months, but state lawmakers have shown no inclination to further relax the mandate.
In 2006, a state motor vehicle advisory board put forth an updated manual that added several new criteria — including a requirement that vehicles have a hood (how’d that one slip by for six decades?) and another mandating a functioning windshield-wiper system. Earlier this year, a bill to move Maine to a biannual inspection passed its first floor vote in the House of Representatives but was withdrawn over concerns it might jeopardize federal highway funds.
Other than outright repeal of the inspection program, there are a number of options that would help Mainers manage the high cost of owning a vehicle. The first step is getting people to have an honest discussion about Maine’s inspection system — which turns out to be no easy feat.
While researching this story, I soon came to realize that the paranoia I felt while driving with an expired sticker is nothing compared to the fear licensed inspectors have to deal with every day. I had little luck getting mechanics and shop owners to speak candidly about inspections on the record. Sure, a reporter can get boilerplate quotes about the importance of vehicle maintenance, and every garage owner says they follow the law.
But as several explained to me when I pressed for more details, the state inspection regime creates a Catch-22 that makes it wiser for mechanics to keep their mouths shut. Mechanics who boast of performing thorough, by-the-book inspections risk losing customers. Like a crafty tax accountant, a mechanic who’ll give you a sticker without sticking you with a big bill is a cherished ally to have. “My vehicle inspection station doesn’t go by the book, thank God,” wrote an anonymous poster to the Web site As Maine Goes last January. “It’s honk the horn, turn on the lights, test the brakes, and sticker on. No, I won’t tell you where I inspect.”
Conversely, a shop that lets it be known they don’t follow all the rules risks attracting the scrutiny of state police, who can strip a business of its lucrative license to perform this work.
The Maine State Police has one sergeant and ten full-time, civilian inspectors responsible for responding to complaints and monitoring the work of about eight thousand licensed inspection technicians at Maine’s roughly 2,500 inspection stations.
Lieutenant Christopher Grotton heads the unit that oversees the inspection program. He says civilian inspectors will monitor a shop suspected of cheating customers, and adds that while most of their work is straightforward inspections, on rare occasions they will use undercover tactics or videotape to catch unscrupulous mechanics. Within the past year, a repair shop in Portland was caught up-selling customers by exaggerating the work necessary for their vehicles to pass inspection. The punishment and fall-out from that bust: The shop was given a warning, and promised to fire any employees found taking advantage of customers in the future. (Grotton did not name the business, but said it was part of a national chain or franchise.)
Mechanics who undercharge customers by ignoring inspection violations risk far more dire consequences. “If you don’t scrutinize every car, you’ll get crushed,” a Windham repair shop owner told me. “Suppose there’s a fatal accident involving vehicle malfunction. The state checks who put that sticker on the car, and you better hope to hell it isn’t one of yours.”
The state is getting more serious about holding mechanics responsible in these cases. A revision made in 2006 now requires inspectors to print their full name in addition to signing the sticker.
In 2007 the state suspended the licenses of 51 stations and 81 technicians and gave 250 warnings. While the mechanics I spoke with said they knew of colleagues who’d lost their certification due to lax inspections that may have contributed to accidents, Lieutenant Grotton says that the instances of licenses being revoked is generally low, only about one or two per year.
Given Maine’s harsh winters — heavily salted roads, potholes, and frost heaves — it’s not uncommon for auto parts to deteriorate after they’ve been inspected and deemed safe. The possibility of post-inspection problems provides another incentive for mechanics to refuse to sticker a car that’s in relatively good condition — if the part wears out six months later and contributes to an accident, the mechanic could be liable. Over the past eighteen months there were four fatal crashes in Maine resulting from brake failure. All four vehicles had a current inspection sticker.
The central justification for Maine’s inspection program is that it makes us safer on the road. Accordingly, one would assume states with inspection programs have fewer accidents caused by vehicle malfunction than those that don’t. But studies and statistics indicate that’s just not the case.
A study published in the Southern Economic Journal in 1999 examined data from all fifty states over a twelve-year period, between 1981 and 1993, and found “no evidence that inspections significantly reduce fatality or injury rates.”
One of the reasons is intuitive. “Drivers have a strong incentive to perform maintenance to provide for their own safety,” the study’s authors wrote. In other words, the risk of serious injury or death posed by driving with faulty brakes is a stronger incentive to get them fixed.
The Southern Economic Journal study also noted that inspections “can at best prevent only a small fraction of accidents since most accidents” — about 99 percent — “do not involve mechanical failure.” Furthermore, “annual inspection may fail to eliminate even the small fraction of accidents caused by mechanical failure,” because an inspection “ensures only that tested parts function on the date of inspection” — not after, say, a season of driving on bumpy, salty, rural roads and highways.
And the study stated what everyone around here already knows, but most are afraid to admit: “Inspectors can fail, intentionally or unintentionally, to report defects.” The authors cited a Pennsylvania study in 1980 that found no type of inspection station managed to find more than half of the defects in a sample of vehicles.
“Inspectors may fail to report defects to minimize customer hassle and increase the number of inspections performed,” the study’s authors wrote. And, citing another study, they noted, “Motorists tend to patronize repair shops with a low failure rate on inspections.”
Comparing more recent accident statistics indicates the 1999 study’s conclusions still hold true.
Connecticut tests cars for emissions, but not for safety. That state has three times the population Maine has and, in 2006, it had roughly twice the number of reported accidents: about 31,000 for us, 72,000 for them. Of the accidents in Maine, 361 of them (or 1.1 percent) were related to vehicle malfunction. Connecticut had 489 accidents due to vehicle malfunction that year: just .68 percent of their total. None of those 489 accidents were fatal. (The Maine Department of Transportation could not provide information on fatalities due to accidents caused by vehicle malfunction in 2006.)
If Maine was really serious about keeping uninspected vehicles off its roads, it might consider requiring the oldest vehicles to be inspected. Maine vehicles more than twenty-five years old that qualify for “antique” plates are exempt from the inspection requirement on the (often erroneous) assumption those vehicles are not routinely driven. Thousands of other Maine vehicles are exempt from the inspection requirement because they’re driven on islands. In Portland, a car used to run errands around town must be inspected, but a car used to run errands on Peaks Island does not.
The effectiveness of Maine’s inspection program is also severely compromised by several significant factors we can’t control: the presence of out-of-state vehicles on our roads; the fact mechanical failures can and do happen regardless of inspection; and the unknown, but undoubtedly high, percentage of Maine cars and trucks given stickers despite violations.
Lieutenant Grotton estimates that 80 percent of cars pass inspection with no repairs. A representative at the Midas on Forest Avenue in Portland estimates 50 percent. “John,” the Windham shop owner, puts the figure at 30 percent.
“If you look hard enough, you can always find something wrong,” one of John’s mechanics chimes in as we are discussing the inspection process.
In an attempt to provide more fairness and consistency to the inspection process, New Jersey and other states have government-run testing facilities. If a car fails inspection, the owner is given a list of what needs to be fixed and can then go wherever they choose to have the repairs done.
John is quick to dismiss this alternative. “Good mechanics make between $75,000 and $80,000 a year,” he says. “The state can’t afford to match that. If they’re paying someone six dollars an hour to inspect cars, think what kind of job they’ll do.”
Dan Ridlon, service and parts director at Casco Bay Ford in Yarmouth, disagrees, saying that inspecting a car isn’t that difficult, and that a state employee could easily be trained to do it. But he wonders whether or not the state itself could run the system.
Voit Ritch, owner of Autowerkes Maine in Freeport, agrees that state-run facilities would lessen the authority of private mechanics to pass or fail a car’s inspection, but notes the bureaucracy of such facilities would make the simple act of getting inspected more difficult. “There would be long lines, it would be hard to find an inspection center,” he remarks.
State Representative Bryan Kaenrath, a Democrat from South Portland, recently tried to pass a bill that would allow Mainers to go two years between inspections. Kaenrath says he felt the one-year timeframe was too short, and that a biannual program would alleviate some of the financial burdens the program imposes.
“A lot of states with winter conditions similar to Maine’s — places like Idaho, Iowa, and North Dakota — don’t have vehicle inspections, and people there manage to drive fine,” Kaenrath says.
Kaenrath’s bill passed an initial vote on the House floor, but he later pulled it off the table over fear of jeopardizing state highway funds. According to former Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Scott Cowger, Maine’s highway funding would have been put at risk by switching to a biannual inspection. Although the highway fund isn’t directly related to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines, Cowger, now retired from the DEP, alleges that backpedaling on existing EPA standards could have given the federal government reason to withhold funds. Recounting his decision to pull his bill, Kaenrath adds, “I didn’t want to be the person responsible for bankrupting the state’s highways.”
Some other states that require safety and emissions testing offer low-income drivers some form of assistance. New Hampshire and Connecticut offer a one-time “economic hardship waiver” to vehicle owners whose cars fail emissions tests and need expensive repairs. Lieutenant Grotton responds that the inspection systems of other states are always worth considering, but that waivers and rebates are often difficult to administer. He did agree that a national standard of inspection might be more effective than individual state laws, especially considering how many out-of-state drivers end up in Maine.
A week after I had my car worked on at shop A, I was contacted by the service manager, who asked if I still needed a sticker. When I told him my car had passed inspection elsewhere, he angrily accused me of having somehow persuaded one of his employees to illegally sticker my car during off hours. That is, he was accusing me, a customer, and one of his own employees, of committing a crime.
For general repairs, I normally take my car to a mechanic who formerly worked for a Portland dealership and now operates out of his house. His business is not authorized to sticker cars, but he did offer some advice.
“Never get your car inspected in the winter,” he says. “Shops don’t have as much business then, and they’ll fail you for anything.”
He added that Shop B had most likely found a problem with the rear strut towers because that particular shop created a kit for repairing strut towers, so it was in their interest to fix as many of them as possible. “It’s not something most mechanics will look for,” he says. “Yes, it can be fixed. But a lot of things on cars can be fixed. It doesn’t always mean they need to be.”
Another version of this article originally appeared in the Bollard. Additional reporting by Chris Busby.