Flunking Inspection

Malvina Forester. She’s a 2008, I’ve had her since 2010, and this photo is from before the 2020 election because she’s since added a Biden/Harris and an Ed Markey to the sticker collection.

In Massachusetts, non-commercial motor vehicles get inspected once a year. When I learned to drive, in the mid/late 1960s, it was twice, spring and fall. Now it’s once, and the year is, sensibly enough, broken into months; probably some effort is made to divide all registered vehicles into 12 semi-equal parts.

Since you have a whole month to get inspected, theoretically this avoids long lines at inspection stations that don’t require appointments. In practice — well, you know what happens: procrastinators all crowd in during the month’s last few days.

This would include me. Getting inspected provokes some anxiety, mostly about the possibility of doing something stupid like not noticing that one brake light is burned out, so I invariably put it off. These days Malvina Forester gets inspected in May. Around mid-month I realized that the hand brake wasn’t holding as well as it should, so I scheduled a visit to my mechanic for the Monday of the last full week in May. That would give me plenty of time to get inspected before the end of the month — which was actually the end of that week, because the last three days of the month were Memorial Day weekend.

Hand brake fixed, oil changed, everything in good working order, that Wednesday afternoon I headed off to my regular inspection station, Mid-Island Repair in beautiful downtown West Tisbury, better known as Kenny Belain’s. To my astonishment Malvina flunked the emissions test. WTF?

When you flunk the emissions test, you get a four-color brochure from the commonwealth about what this means and your Vehicle Inspection Report includes a list of “local registered emissions repair shops.” “Local” notwithstanding, only two of the 10 were on the Vineyard and Courtesy Motors, which has taken great care of my vehicles as long as I’ve been on the Vineyard, was not one of them.

So at the next opportunity I headed up there to consult with Larry, who now runs the shop with his son Jesse, who might not have been born when I made my first visit and if he was he would have been very young. Courtesy Motors is very well named: Larry is a soft-spoken, unfailingly polite guy who has never treated me like a car-clueless female even though on some occasions I have been known to act like one. He called my attention to the small print on page 2 of the inspection report: “Your vehicle’s On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) system is not ready to be tested. As a result, your vehicle cannot receive a complete emissions test at this time. This is often caused by a disconnected battery or recent repair work.”

Aha. Larry explained that mechanics may disconnect and reconnect the battery in the course of doing repairs, that this causes the car’s on-board computer to reset, and that the car has to be driven a while before it’s functioning normally again. I hadn’t driven much between between the repair work on Monday and inspection on Wednesday. This had to be it — I hoped. At least the specter of major repairs in my future receded somewhat. Larry said if I wanted to bring the car by before I took it to be re-inspected, they’d test the emissions to make sure I’d pass on the second try. The flunk report said that “if your vehicle does not pass a re-test within 60 days of its initial inspection, RMV [Registry of Motor Vehicles] may suspend your registration,” so this was reassuring.

In Massachusetts at least, all inspection flunks are not created equal. If you flunk any of the safety tests, you have only 7 days to fix them and get re-inspected. If you flunk the emissions test, you have 60 days. Clearly an emissions flunk is a higher class of flunk, and the two have different color Rs on the sticker so vigilant police officers can tell them apart.

The 60-day deadline gave me more time to procrastinate and worry from time to time about what-ifs. So at the tail end of June I finally got myself back to Kenny Belain’s. There were 9 or 10 cars in line: clearly I’m not the only one who leaves inspection to the last minute. July was coming right up, like on Thursday, so I turned around and went home.

When I returned, on Thursday, July 1, there was no line at all. Malvina passed her emissions test, we’re legal again, and I know better than to go for inspection soon after having repair work done. My inspection month is still May. Fine with me, because there are a lot more cars on the island in July.

Maybe next time I’ll know better than to leave it all to the end of the month?

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to Flunking Inspection

  1. Lynn Khosla says:

    Great post! As the owner of a 2006 Subaru Forrester who always has it inspected at Mid-Island, I feel we are kindred spirits. Thanks for the info re the emissions flunk – I learned something new! Good luck with Malvina. My sapphire blue Subaru has just passed 175,000+ miles. I love her to bits.


  2. crquimby says:

    Some states, like mine, have gotten rid of these inspections. Most cars these days are more reliable, and the inspections may weed out some cars that shouldn’t be on the road.

    But more generally, this is yet another tax on the poor. Is it better that inspectors are calling out the infractions, vs cops pulling drivers over?

    I can’t judge. But it’s worth asking if this is an environmental measure or yet another way of making like inconvenient for the majority while still making life hell for the poor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is an excellent point, and one I hadn’t thought about. (Are you talking about Colorado?) Compared to the cost of keeping a car on the road, the $35 inspection fee doesn’t seem all that much; because I live where I live, I tend to think of it as a modest but reliable revenue stream for small, seasonally challenged repair shops.

      But that avoids the question of “What purpose does it serve? Does it keep unsafe vehicles off the road, either by flunking them at inspection or by giving drivers a yearly incentive to fix things that are broken or in danger of breaking?” I don’t know. Someone must have studied this at some point! Anecdotally, this year it gave me an incentive to get my hand brake fixed, and I see enough cars on the road with burned-out head- or taillights to suspect that some drivers aren’t routinely paying attention to this.

      Which isn’t all that surprising, because how often do you walk around your vehicle with the engine running to check all the lights and turn signals? I can tell you when I do it: right before I go for inspection. 😉

      Cops pulling drivers over for burned-out headlights or other minor safety violations is a big issue. Cases where someone, almost invariably a person of color, gets shot as the result of a traffic stop make the news, but other cases don’t, as when the cop finds marijuana in the car or when the driver is an undocumented person without a license. In most states, non-citizens without green cards can’t get licenses. (Just looked it up: in only 16 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico can undocumented immigrants get licenses. In my state, activists are working on this.)

      Whether inspections help cut down those traffic stops — I don’t know. It’s quite possible for a headlight (etc.) to fail a few days after inspection, and it’s also possible that some cops are just loaded for bear. Driving While Black is a thing, and that burned-out headlight or failure to signal may just be an excuse to pull someone over. Like would a white person have been pulled over for driving the same vehicle in the same condition?

      Thanks for raising the question!


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