Your Car Passed… But That Doesn’t Necessarily Mean it’s Safe to Drive

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I’ve got a friend who owns a car repair shop. He’s an officially authorized state safety inspector. The guy who goes over your vehicle and gives you a sticker (well, after you pay for it) if your car passes muster.

The other day I was hanging out over at the shop, chewing the fat with him while he was inspecting someone’s car. A minivan, actually. All four tires were nearly bald. Two of them had absolutely no outer sidewall tread left; the shoulders were as smooth as glass.There was still some tread left on the inner section of the tires, though it was razor thin.

Fail – right?

Pass, actually.

My friend explained. State law says an individual tire has to have the treadwear bars showing across the entire length of the tread and in several sections of the tire before it fails. In other words, a tire can be partially bald – even have a complete flat spot – and still be legal even though it’s obviously not safe. A tire such as the tires on this particular minivan would, for example, be very likely to hydroplane because there’s insufficient tread depth to dissipate the water on the road. But technically – legally – my friend could not fail the vehicle. All he could do was note on the customer’s receipt that the tires were worn to the limit of legality – and advise him that he really ought to consider getting new tires. Soon.

Case two:

My friend told me about brake inspection procedure. The law – written by bureaucrats and politicians, not technicians or even people who do their own oil changes – says he can’t fail a car for brake problems even if the area around the wheel cylinders (a hydraulic piston with rubber seals) is clearly moist – sure evidence of a leak. And if a hydraulic system such as your car’s brakes is leaking, it means your brakes probably aren’t working right – or soon won’t be. But my friend can’t fail you unless he sees drips – not merely evidence of moisture.  Because he’s not allowed to check further. He – by law, as he explained it to me – cannot probe/pull back or otherwise look behind the rubber dust boots on the wheel cylinders to check to see why the area around there is moist. Because bureaucrats – people who know nothing about cars or how they work – decided this would result in possible damage to the rubber dust boots, which (apparently) had annoyed some influential (but car-ignorant) muckey-mucks, who put pressure on the appropriate legislative body to have the law changed so as to forbid an inspector like my friend from probing further. Even though any sign of moisture around a wheel cylinder is clear evidence of a leak. A slow leak or a small leak, perhaps. But a leak, nonetheless – and bad news, if you give a damn about being able to stop.

The Law doesn’t give a damn about that. What it does give a damn about, is safety theater – making the vehicle owner who goes in for the mandatory inspection feel “safe” if his car is duly stickered. Even if, in fact, it may not be (safe).

My friend finds it all very frustrating. He’s a conscientious guy and tries to tell people, based on his expert opinion as a master mechanic, that they probably ought to get their brakes fixed, or buy a set of tires. But he still has to pass their vehicles, based on the non-expert standards and procedures set forth in the state’s “book.” Or, if his expert opinion is trumped by the non-expert opinion of a cop. In my state (Virginia) the state safety inspection system is overseen by the state police – not the DMV (not that that would be any improvement – but still). Every once in awhile, a state cop shows up at my friend’s shop to look around. The cop will also arbitrate disputes, as when a vehicle owner contests a “failed” inspection. The interesting thing is the cop is, well… a cop. He’s a law-enforcer.  Not an ASE Master Technician or even a Do-it-Yourselfer. Yet his opinion in a dispute over a technical question becomes the Final Word.

Most people who bring their vehicles in for the safety theater performance have no idea about all this. They just assume that if their vehicle gets a sticker why, it must be safe since, after all, the sticker says so. The sticker absolves them of all further responsibility from making sure that their vehicle is in fact safe – sticker or not. For the next year, people like the owner of the minivan with the near-bald tires will motor on – because that sticker is good for a full year, even if the tires may not be “good” for more than another month.  Same story with the brakes. So long as they “passed” yesterday, no need to think about them tomorrow. Or next month. Or six months from now, when the little leak becomes a big one and the system loses hydraulic pressure during a panic stop and you pile-drive into the car ahead that slowed down unexpectedly.

But hey, your car “passed.”

The point to take away from all this is simple: Don’t assume your car – or one you’re thinking about maybe buying –  is in perfect (or even good) working order just because there’s a sticker on the windshield.

It’s ultimately up to you to be sure.





  1. In the early and mid 1990s I lived next to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. The rolling wrecks I saw were unbelievable. A full size late 70s GM car with THREE mini spares for wheels. A Maverick with blown ball joints. A large chrysler/dodge that the trunk floor had rusted away from the frame and on every bump it flexed in the quarterpanels and then slammed back down on the frame. A ride called “the bat mobile” which looked ok at night but in the daytime was clearly mostly bondo. The countless pick up trucks of scrappers that were folding into a V at the back of the cab. Those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. And yet, I only ever saw one involved in a crash. A well rusted 70s japanese car that somehow got up on the sidewalk and crashed into an old fashioned light pole… the kind that doesn’t give or break away. The owner just left it there. It disappeared in about a week.

    Somehow people restricted their driving in some way that these cars didn’t end up causing collisions. How I don’t know.

    • In my life, I’ve owned many a POS car (Dom can chime in here, too!) and, as you say, I self-regulated and drove with respect for the limitations of the vehicle. Never had a problem – other than the car just not running!

      There are reckless idiots out there who will drive a broken down old POS at Top Speed, ride inches off the bumper of the car ahead of them, bad brakes notwithstanding – and so on. But these are few and far between – like the dickheads who mishandle or misuse firearms. The one-size-fits-all collective guilt model is both unfair and irrelevant. Unfair – because it harasses people who don’t cause trouble – and irrelevant because such efforts never stop the scheissekopfs who don’t give a damn about others, or putting others in harm’s way.

      • Ha, I’ve spend my entire life driving a beater and not once had any major issue. Matter of fact I still have my Saturn beater with over 450k on the clock. It’s been so good to me I keep it for emergencies.

    • I grew up in Mount Prospect but spent a fair amount of time driving into Chicago. It wasn’t all that uncommon to see older cars on the shoulder engulfed in flames. I guess if the engine caught fire it was considered standard procedure to just walk away and leave it others to eventually deal with the problem.

      • Years ago, I had a Beetle (old model). As you probably know, they were prone to engine fires. (Back in the Day, it was common to see Beetles with blistered/burned trunklids). Well, mine caught fire – and being young, poor and not as wise then as I am now, I did not have a fire extinguisher handy. But I did have a shovel handy. So I frantically pitched dirt onto the “campfire” and managed to snuff it before the whole car (but not the wiring harness) was toast…

  2. I vote for the owner/operator of each vehicle certify as safe their own vehicles at each registration.

    But hey, everything is F’d up and it ain’t going to get any better.

    I can hardly wait for Jesus to return.

  3. The last time I studied the issue of vehicle inspections in the 1980’s, mechanical failure was responsible for fewer than 1 percent of fatalities on the highways. Government approved inspections are simply a way for government to expand its power over people and for repair shops to make a huge profit from it. On getting my vehicle inspected in Texas, I was charged $15.00 for a frigging gas cap which apparently wasn’t holding pressure. What a waste of money and time. Sounds more like a scam to me.

    • When I was young, I recall my parents talking about how the windshield wiper blades were always “bad” on every car they took in for inspection. Of course the shop had new blades on hand to sell you or you got a rejection sticker. My dad decided to put a new set on right before an inspection to test this theory. Sure enough, they were “bad” too until he showed them the receipt. Hmmm. I vote for scam too.

      • It’s a scam – but it’s worse than a scam because the supposed reason for it – “safety” – is an illusion. Like so many other aspects of modern American life, the cattle out there have absolved themselves of responsibility for making sure their vehicle is always in good working order – and not just on the day of inspection.

        Motorcycle riders routinely inspect their machines before riding. They check the tires for pressure and signs of damage. They make sure the brakes are working correctly – and so on. Because they know what the consequences will be if not. Many car drivers are completely oblivious – and indifferent. It’s become so bad that now the government has had to mandate tire pressure sensors because the fools out there are too god-damned lazy and inept to do even that.

        • “… the supposed reason for it – “safety” – is an illusion.”

          THAT – sums up about 90% of modern life.

          I had this discussion with people following 9/11 at my company (ADP). Corporate put up a guardhouse with gates to control how people came and went from HQ. No fence to mar the scenery, highway was… 20 feet away at the closest point? As in, a grenade toss, no problem. Or a brick of C4. BIG sign indicating who “lived” there, a big atrium facing said highway.
          My argument was, it’s a farce; a circus. A waste. I argued with everyone who said they felt “so much safer” that it was just an image. I also explained what it would look like WITH proper secruity. (It would make a prison look lax.)

          Everyone agreed with my Security concept being overkill (me included, that was the point: The price of security was essentially being stripped naked, searched inside and out, issued a smock to wear inside the building, being videotaped at all times, armed guards wandering the halls, all network traffic monitored, all phones tapped, all data stored and analyzed, and no outside connection – inside only. No cell phones, cameras, jewelry, hair clips, etc. And on the outside, high, multi-layer, barbed-wire fences atop cement walls, also monitored, no unapproved visits, watch towers, infared scanners, motion detectors, automated weapons, roving guards on the grounds, and various automated defense systems like AEGIS. And I made a case you’d STILL get things past the guards and security measures.

          Whereas, the guard house wouldn’t protect you against an out-of-control VW Rabbit, let alone someone with intent or ability – it was a straight shot to the front door, all you needed was a fuel tanker and a flare…

          I wasn’t popular, let’s put it that way. 😉

    • It’s a real screw-over for those of us with multiple vehicles. I have seven (including the bikes). If I get all of them inspected once annually, that’s $105 out the friggin’ window (not to mention the time I have to waste taking the vehicles in) to be told what I already know. That my vehicles are in good working order. And why? Because (if you believe their rationale) there are Clovers out there who otherwise won’t keep their vehicles in good working order. Or (more honestly) because the state/county wants more money from me.

      I’d rather they just take my damn money and let me at least skip the song-and-dance “inspection.”

  4. I used to do inspections in PA, I hated it. The pay sucked, as it was a flat rate shop and for almost an hour of work you got paid, if I remember correctly(and I try to forget)for a half hour of work. They “required” you to measure tread depth, brake thickness, headlight aim, etc. And your shop was liable for ANY failures down the road. One poor bastard got sued because a metal brake line failed, and it was on the frame next to the gas tank, a common failure area, and completely hidden. I called the whole thing the:
    “steal from your neighbor program” I had worked as a mechanic in WI and there was no inspections, and FAR fewer cars on the side of the road than in NE PA, near Philthadelphia. So glad I can now be an honest mechanic again.

    • State inspections, emissions inspections, tag & title fees, property tax, gas tax, insurance, county stickers. The whole lot of it is gimmick on top of gimmick. Thank you sir may I have another? And if it really was about safety, wouldn’t the inspection require all wheels to come off and inspect brakes on both sides? I know in Virginia it’s only required to pull one side.

    • Agree. Even if you do “due diligence” and the car’s condition is righteous at the time of the inspection, that is no guarantee that it will be in righteous condition three (or six) months later. Or even a month down the road. Mechanical system fail. Things wear out. They do not necessarily wear at uniform or linear rates. But the inspection system gives the owner a false sense of security – my car passed, so I don’t need to worry about anything until same time next year. And to me, that’s the worst aspect of the whole thing. People should be personally vigilant about their vehicles and not assume all’s ok just because they got a sticker last month. These inspections are of a piece with other forms of learned helplessness that’s ruining this country, turning everyone into passive sheep waiting to be told what to do.

  5. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the other side “benefit” of safety inspections: higher insurance costs.
    If insurance companies couldn’t rely on the state’s rubber stamp, I’m sure some of them would offer discounts for a company approved version of a safety inspection where they absolutely would bounce leaking brake cylinders or bald tires. And there would be an incentive for owners to do these inspections, in the form of lower rates.

    I’d actually be interested to know if anything of the sort exists in Arkansas, if they don’t have safety inspections.

    Also, on a related note, I don’t remember the mountain of dead babies produced as evidence during the 1990s showing how we need kids in 5-point harnesses until they’ve moved out and gone to college.
    I do remember being 6 and rolling down the interstate in a full size van wrestling up to 5 other kids in the cargo area. I even remember riding around in a Corvair! I should be dead several times over!

    • This is an excellent point. I agree; if someone causes an accident because they failed to maintain their vehicle, then they ought to be held civilly (and perhaps criminally) responsible. It’s interesting that the same crowd that wants to regulate firearms ownership to the nth degree (if not outlaw private possession of firearms altogether) also absolves people of being personally responsible for the 3,000-plus pound mass of steel and glass they drive at 70 MPH. Just get that sticker and your “safe” – no need to check the tires or brakes again until same time next year…..

  6. At least in Texas, tires must have a minimum of 1/8″ of tread, and if the brakes pull during the driving check, it fails.

  7. I used to live in Utah, which had, and still does…. have safety inspections. Sometimes my car would fail, and for good reason. At other times, they nit-picked to death. Conviently, the safety inspections took place at independent garages…. which could also do the repairs. Rather a conflcit of interest I would say. They had every incentive to fail a car so that they could pad their wallets. I was a DYI person back then. A lot of the time, it looked a lot like nit-picking.

    I would have trusted they system a whole lot more if a State inspection facility, one not affiliated with ANY repair facility did the inspections.

    I live in Oregon now. No safety inspection at all. Yet there is little news about unsafe cars. Oregon is one of two states that do not allow self-serve gas….. because it is too dangerous. Go figure!

    • Yeah!

      New Jersey’s the other. It’s so retarded (and/or corrupt) you have trouble believing it the first time you have to deal with it (can’t pump your own gas).

      • Enough corruption and waste to export to other states.

        The state did away with the safety part of the inspection, but that was not reflected in lower registration costs.

      • Retarded.
        As in, a “genius” is someone who can walk and breath at the same time.

        The sad thing is – YOU think I’m exaggerating.

    • I drove through Oregon twice in a gas hungry RV while traveling to and from California. Being an outsider and unfamiliar with the Oregon system, I initially blundered and sinned big time by trying to do the pumping myself which is customary in my home state. I soon found myself getting lectured by young woman employee as she marched toward the pump to assert her territorial claim upon it. It didn’t take her long to bring me up to speed on the legislation which she emphasized “is the law”. Perhaps I should be grateful that I was apprehended and enlightened in the early stages of my crime spree. Had any gas actually entered the tank maybe I would have ended up in the nearest drunk tank for a night minus my belt and shoes. I really do wonder what the penalties are for non-compliance? More than likely they go after the owners but who knows? I felt like saying that the whole thing smelled like a make-work project dreamed up some corrupt politician with “good intentions” but I didn’t press the issue. Sometimes it just isn’t worth wasting your breath. I heard that license plate fees have gone up a lot in Oregon.

      • I’ve been through NJ many times and dealt with it there. It would annoy me immensely if I had to live there. The idea of it as well as the fact of it. I don’t like make-work projects and I really don’t like being told by “the law” that I must permit some random dude to manhandle my vehicle, probably spilling gas all over my paint in the process.

        • I usually do not have any issues pumping my gas in NJ. Usually the only places that care are places that have been fined by the state.

          Ironically, it is ok to pump diesel into your vehicle.

          Regardless, I am always watching if they do pump gas into my car and give them grief if any fuel is dropped on my paint.

        • (Heh)
          Lived in Jersey for 30 years, roughly, accumulated time (counting out college and long-term consulting).
          Most of the people running the stations didnt want to risk talking to me. I pulled up on the bike, I pumped my own gas. In the car, it depended – especially after the time spent out of state, I’d be up and out before they could move. Never got a “safety” lecture… Maybe they got the feeling I’d spray them with gas and light a match? entertaining though that might be, they’re not cops, just idiot humans. I’ll give them more leeway. But I just LOOK big and scary, like a bulldog or doberman. People cross the street to avoid me, until they know me. 🙂

    • NJ has had a dual inspection system for decades. You could get state inspection free, or pay for a garage. I have gone to a garage ever since that was implemented. While there is a temptation to funnel repair work into the shop, there is also the very real business need not to alienate customers.

      However the state run places are worse. Unlike a private shop which has incentive to keep you as a customer, the state guys could and would be completely capricious in their decisions. They had power and there was little that you as the customer could do about it.

      It has been well worth a few bucks to go to a local shop.

      • I live in a rural area and this helps somewhat, in the sense that (as you say) the local shop has a strong incentive to treat people fairly – because if not, word gets out fast and that shop’s not going to stay in business much longer.

        • In my case (living in a rural area too) I have a mechanic that knows me and my work ethic / mechanical skills. I pull in, he scrapes the old sticker off, sticks the new one, I pay 11 bucks and go on my merry way. It usually takes me a couple of years to establish that relationship after I move, but I always seem to be able to.

          • There was a cycle shop like that in PA when I lived there. If you (I) looked kinda scruffy and rode a decrepit Harley Davidson, it was pay the usual fee with a 20.00 “surcharge” and the sticker went right on!

  8. NJ has eliminated all but emission testing. Studies have apparently shown that state inspections have no real effect on the quality of cars on the road (since NJ has historically provided the option of state run inspections, this resulted in a significant cost savings)

      • HEY! I was BORN in Jersey!

        So, guess what, dumbass, I’m qualified to answer your question! 😉

        And the answer is… Well… NEVER. When I left NJ, the average IQ dropped 10 points! 😉
        (I’m about a 123 – you can do the math from there!)

        [Being born there does NOT make for loyalty to the State of New Jerkoffs. In fact, I’m still trying to wash off the rot after almost three years permanently out of state.]


  9. It all comes down to state control and wealth extraction. The state “sells” a meaningless sticker we don’t need under threat of force to put more money in their coffers. Florida did away with vehicle inspections 30 years ago and nobody’s head exploded. It’s no different than paying into a protection racket: ‘Give us your money or don’t drive that car you paid for. If you drive anyway and we catch you we take even more of your money. If you resist the theft, then we will shock, beat and even shoot you; if you live through that, we take more money still and cage you for a while.’

    But the extraction is even more insidious than merely registration, license plates, inspection stickers and insurance cards. Regulatory requirements for safety features on new cars not only allow automobile manufacturers additional mark up, the higher base price is reflected in increased registration fees, sales tax and property tax. Ask the folks whose kids died, before we figured out that air bags weren’t so safe after all, how that mandate worked for them. So much for the bovine hyperbole of “If it just saves one life….”

    The way I see it, if the state has any interest in our safety and well-being, it’s only because dead slaves don’t pay taxes.

    • And that’s exactly the point, Boothe, as you say:
      it’s only because dead slaves don’t pay taxes

      We’re cattle, farmed on a ranch–the nation-state. Any vestiges of “freedom” still allowed are purely to enhance our well-being and thus our yield; free-range cattle make better meat.

      Self-ownership flew out the window long ago; the State’s interest in your health is identical to the rancher’s concern for his cows’ well-being. Interestingly, and obviously when you think about it, longevity is no longer in the State’s interest–because OLD cows become EXPENSIVE cows.

  10. I find it interesting that those states, like Arkansas, that have done away with inspections have not seen a sudden and dramatic rise in death and carnage from having so many uninspected, an presumably coffins on wheels, card on the road. we seem to be no worse off without the inspections than with them. It seems that when people have to be responsible for themselves, they tend to want to continue living and therefore choose to do things voluntarily to increase that likelihood, such as repairing their car or wearing a seatbelt. We don’t need to park our brains in neutral and let te state tell us what is right or wrong. If, suddenly all the stop lights and street signs directing traffic disappeared, people would quickly adapt and try hard not to kill each other out of a sense of self preservation. No nanny state required.

    This, of course, can be said of the FDA, TSA, etc. in fact, you’ll notice every single plane-related terrorist plot in the past ten years has been missed by the TSA and foiled by regular passengers themselves. The only “terrorist plots” stopped by government agents were the ones the same Feds had pushed the perpetrators in to. Veryuch like talking a kid into robbing a bank, handing him a gun, a car, and a plan, and then arresting him before he enters the bank.

  11. I actually think this is good.
    1) The fools who think that a vehicle inspection makes their car safe will hopefully be removed from the genepool
    2) Do we really want MORE state involvment in our cars? Instead of taking 30 mins to inspect the car, do we want to give the inspector the authority / responsibility to make a more invasive inspection? One that may take an hour or two? We want the state regulating how inspectors are conducting their inspections more? Seems foolish to me.

    Since this is all a revenue scheme by the state, spending as little time / effort in the theatre is my vote. Eliminating the tax would be preferable, but that’s not going to happen.

    • Agree –

      Doing away with these inspections would achieve two things:

      One, if would eliminate a pointless hassle/expense for people who are conscientious about their vehicles.

      Two, it would encourage people who are currently passive to unlearn their learned helplessness and start paying attention – and looking out for themselves.

    • “1) The fools who think that a vehicle inspection makes their car safe will hopefully be removed from the genepool”
      Yeah but they might take us with them.


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