The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a new state safety and emissions inspection vendor. The prospect of increased scrutiny in the system has received national attention. Is it as bad as it sounds?
States that perform safety inspections are a rarity these days. Just 17 states require annual or biennial safety inspections. Just two more require safety inspections when cars are sold or registrations are transferred from another state.
Just 11 states require emissions inspections on an annual or biennial basis, regardless of location. Several more states have emissions requirements, but they’re only in metro areas. For example, Ohio has an odd/even emissions inspection, depending on your plate number, but only for cars registered in the Cleveland Metro area.
Massachusetts, however, is one of just small percentage of states that has both an annual safety inspection AND an annual emissions inspection. Safety inspection includes a physical inspection of 25 different items. That inspection includes things you might expect, like working lights and horn, but a few you might not.
For example, to pass inspection, technicians are supposed to jack the front end up and inspect for wear in the ball joints and tie rod ends, as well as checking for rust holes in the body and the frame.
“Supposed to” is the operative word, and it’s where The Drive’s article focused attention. The issue came to a head in September of 2017, when the Commonwealth announced that it had a new vendor for inspection sticker processing, and some new requirements, as well. “Although the laws regarding inspections remain unchanged, updates to inspection equipment will include five cameras in every bay to verify that no violations slide by with a sticker,” the article states.
The truth, though, is that the camera requirement was there before, only the number of cameras has increased from two to five. The idea is to keep an eye on shops that were fraudulently handing out stickers for blatantly obvious violations. One of the most common violations has to do with altered vehicle height.
Massachusetts General Law 90-7P is clear: “No person shall alter, modify or change the height of a motor vehicle with an original manufacturer’s gross vehicle weight rating of up to and including ten thousand pounds, by elevating or lowering the chassis or body by more than two inches above or below the original manufacturer’s specified height by use of so-called ”shackle lift kits” for leaf springs or by use of lift kits for coil springs, tires, or any other means or device.”
Yet, you commonly see stanced Civics and raised F-250s running around with valid inspection stickers. The cameras were there to prevent that.
Where it gets a little sticky, though, is that inspection stations aren’t run by the state. They’re a partnership between the Commonwealth and independent shops. The shop foots the approximately $6,000 bill for the equipment, and the Commonwealth and the shop splits the revenue. Annual inspections cost drivers $35. After the sticker vendor takes its cut, Massachusetts and the shop each ends up getting about $15 per sticker.
Depending on how strict the shop wants to be, the sticker process can be a bit of a nightmare, but that’s no more true now than it was last year.
There’s also the issue of modifications to the emissions system. For cars that are required to go through emissions inspection in Massachusetts — those that are 15 years old or newer — it’s pretty cut and dried: Because Massachusetts signed on to California’s emissions requirements, Massachusetts drivers who modify their cars have to select CARB (California Air Resources Board)-approved modifications.
The potential issue is that requirement is true for every car ever produced. If your car came with an EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) valve in 1970, that piece of equipment was still supposed to be present. Since Massachusetts cars older than 15 years old weren’t required to go through emissions for decades, it was kind of a moot point, but if shops were suddenly going to be required to check for PCV valves, air pumps and catalytic converters that had long been relegated to the scrap heap, it was going to cause a mountain of problems for vintage car enthusiasts.
The owner of one shop, Phil Sansossio of Sansossio Auto Couture, told The Drive: “Cats aren’t the only concern. The law is that emission/evaporator systems can’t be modified. No EGR removal, no cold air intakes, no forced induction mods.”
California has always required that original emissions equipment remain in place. It’s not easy to pass a SMOG check in California, but it’s a lot easier than having to replicate obsolete equipment that was thrown in the scrap metal dumpster back in 1988.
Here’s our experience today: We ran our ’78 Chevrolet Blazer through the process. We’ve both passed and failed on different occasions at this shop, for things like non-working horns, faulty emergency brakes and the like. This year, we verified that all the lights, horns, brakes and wipers worked, and ran it through.
The concern was that the truck originally had an air pump, a PCV valve and a catalytic converter, all of which have been gone since the time George Bush — senior — was in office. Was it going to fail?
Nope. We talked to the owner of the shop. Aside from the new system being completely down for a few days, it doesn’t appear that anyone’s paying closer attention to vintage cars than they were a month ago.
The reality of the inspection program appears to be no more stringent than it was last year. Shops that were strict before will remain so. Shops that were more lenient before will have to crack down on the most obvious violations.
But five cameras running at approximately 1,300 inspection stations across the state means that the likelihood of catching less-than-obvious deviations from the very letter of the law are still pretty slim.