Some clouds
64°
Some clouds
Hi 71° | Lo 53°

Vt. Inspections May Go Electric

Auto Shops See Benefits of Proposal, but Costs, Customer Impact a Concern

  • John Sears pulls the tire off a Toyota while performing an inspection at his shop in Sharon earlier this month. Sears said Vermont’s new inspection procedure may be more efficient, but he is also worried about the proposed rule’s effect on his customers. “I’m hoping there’s going to be some wiggle room, at least initially,’’ he said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    John Sears pulls the tire off a Toyota while performing an inspection at his shop in Sharon earlier this month. Sears said Vermont’s new inspection procedure may be more efficient, but he is also worried about the proposed rule’s effect on his customers. “I’m hoping there’s going to be some wiggle room, at least initially,’’ he said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • John Sears answers the telephone at his auto repair shop in Sharon. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    John Sears answers the telephone at his auto repair shop in Sharon. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Inspection stickers sit on a table at Sears’ auto shop. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Inspection stickers sit on a table at Sears’ auto shop. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • John Sears pulls the tire off a Toyota while performing an inspection at his shop in Sharon earlier this month. Sears said Vermont’s new inspection procedure may be more efficient, but he is also worried about the proposed rule’s effect on his customers. “I’m hoping there’s going to be some wiggle room, at least initially,’’ he said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • John Sears answers the telephone at his auto repair shop in Sharon. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Inspection stickers sit on a table at Sears’ auto shop. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

White River Junction — Vermont may soon require vehicle safety and emission-control inspections to be conducted through a state-approved computer system, a proposal that has some station owners and technicians worried about added costs — for their shops and their customers — and others happy to see paperwork reduced and the “playing field” leveled.

The 4,000 licensed inspection mechanics working at Vermont’s 1,600 inspection stations now use a hand-held scanner, which plugs into an outlet under the dashboard of vehicles built since 1996, to check the on-board diagnostics system. Mechanics then enter the results on a paper form to be sent to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Under the new proposal, inspection stations would be required to use state-approved computerized workstations to conduct safety and emissions inspections. The results would then be transmitted electronically to the DMV.

Drew Bloom, chief inspector for Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles, said he expects the computerized system to be in place in Vermont by the end of the year, which would leave Maine as the last state without such a program.

“It really is a cumbersome and antiquated process right now,’’ Bloom said earlier this month. “It will help us in enforcement and looking at stations that may be always failing cars for the same thing, or a station that never fails anybody.”

Bloom said comments received so far on the proposed change show cost is the biggest worry. “I understand the concern about that, but I really don’t think it’s going to be an enormous cost,” he said. “We’re not going to be adding tons of money to the cost of an inspection.”

Equity is another issue, he said. “We have a lot of inspection stations that want their competitors operating on a fair and level playing field,” he added.

Bloom’s preference would be for an outside contractor to provide and maintain the computer equipment and train inspectors. In return, that company would receive a percentage of each inspection fee.

“Stations could either absorb that cost or raise their fees,’’ Bloom said, noting that Vermont doesn’t set fees for vehicle inspections.

“We don’t provide (inspection station owners) a license so they can make a living,” he said. “We set them up so they can enforce any rule violations that occur.”

Impact on Stations, Drivers

Roger Labonte, service manager at Bob’s Service Center in White River Junction, said his shop charges $49 for an inspection and does an average of about 75 such checks each month. The cost of buying state inspection stickers goes up 50 cents to $1 a year, and Labonte said he would try to absorb the cost of a new computerized inspection system.

“If they’re going to charge me $300 per month to rent a machine, I would have to think about passing the cost on,’’ Labonte said. “But if it’s only $25 or something, then no.”

Offering state inspections helps automotive shops attract customers who often want to get that work done along with other repairs or tuneups, said Rob Merchand of Merchand Brothers Garage in White River Junction. He said he doesn’t expect the cost of an inspection — his shop charges $55 — to rise dramatically because of the new technology, but called it “a small form of inflation.”

“You generate work from doing inspections, even though people can get the repairs done anywhere they want,’’ Merchand said. “Most of the time they’re already here and they have it taken care of here. If the (computer vendor) is going to take an additional $5, that’s money I would be making. I don’t think many stations are going to be happy about this. No business wants to have to go backward.”

No vehicle owner wants to fail an inspection, either, but Labonte said there will be more of that happening when emissions are electronically monitored and immediately reported to the state.

“It’s going to tighten the reins quite a bit,’’ said Labonte. “It’s going to eliminate human error, and if there’s a ‘check engine’ light on, it’s going to eliminate a dishonest person’s ability to deceive the state. We’d like to think we’re all on the same honest page, but we also know that’s not the case.”

Said Merchand: “I’ve had cars come in here that won’t pass inspection and the next thing you know, you see them on the road with a fresh sticker. I’ve seen that all my life.”

State Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, a former vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t believe inspection fraud is a widespread problem in Vermont. However, he understands the DMV’s desire to crack down on what does exist.

“They don’t want people to cheat and I’m aware of some (vehicle owners) slipping by on some minor stuff,’’ he said. “I’m not aware of any garage owners fudging on anything really important.”

The ‘Honor System’

Joel Brooks is a mechanic at Randy Howe’s Sunoco station on North Main Street in White River Junction. He said he plied the same trade in New Hampshire after that state completed its two-year switch to a computerized system in 2007.

“I’ve always told people that Vermont is on an honor system,’’ said Brooks, who estimated that Randy’s conducts 60 to 80 inspections a month. “In New Hampshire, if your ‘check engine’ light is on, no matter what trick you think you know, that car isn’t passing inspection. You can’t just look the other way.

“Right now, I’m the deciding factor and it’s up to me to check the right box on the paperwork,” he said.

With a computerized system, the DMV is “going to know the moment you pass or fail,” Bloom said.

“If ‘Honest Bob’s’ gives your car a road test and says there’s a nasty vibration and the brakes are failing, and then you go down to ‘Dishonest Bill’s’ and get a sticker an hour later, we’re going to know about it,’’ Bloom said.

John Sears, who runs a one-man shop and inspection station in Sharon, said he worries about how electronically monitored inspections could affect drivers who can least afford their vehicles failing the test.

“I’m hoping there’s going to be some wiggle room, at least initially,’’ Sears said. “The collision point is going to be with people who have 10- and 12-year-old vehicles and barely have enough money to maintain them in a good fashion and then their catalytic converter light or something comes on. That could cost them $1,500, and if they don’t have the money maybe they can’t get to work the next day, unless (the state) builds in a way to ramp up to this.”

Brenda Metzler, of Hartland, had similar sentiments while filling her car with gas earlier this month at Bob’s Service Center. She said it’s troublesome that some inspection mechanics aren’t toeing the line. But she also feels for drivers who must pinch pennies, particularly in an area with limited public transportation.

“I don’t want a car falling apart as it’s passing me at 75 mph on (Interstate) 91,’’ she said. “Maybe if you fail an inspection, you could have it taken care of in some sort of reasonable time frame. If that happened to me today, it wouldn’t be in my budget. I’m a tree-hugger and I want emissions monitored, but I’m not in denial of common sense.”

But to Bloom, this is a black-and-white issue.

“There isn’t supposed to be any wiggle room’’ he said. “If the car can’t pass, it shouldn’t pass. I can’t give you permission to drive 66 mph on the interstate, either. If my ‘check engine’ light comes on, it comes on for a reason and I get it fixed.”

Changing the Rules

Bloom said the proposal has cleared an administrative committee and must successfully navigate a legislative committee before being considered by the secretary of state. If approved, DMV Commissioner Robert Ide could then implement the change administratively.

State Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he wasn’t up to date on the proposal when asked about it 10 days ago. “I didn’t know (the DMV) was looking to do it this quick,’’ Brennan said then. “But just because it doesn’t come before the Legislature doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a finger on it. I’d like to hear a presentation on this.”

Jennifer Jakubauskas, the New Hampshire DMV’s on-board diagnostics program manager, said her state went from no emissions testing to a computerized version starting in 2005, and the process had few glitches.

The program was rolled out county by county, and while the fee charged to the state’s 2,220 inspection stations was as high as $5.15 per inspection at one point, it’s now down to $3.81, thanks to a contract renegotiation with the computer system vendor, she said.

“Stations raised their fees from about $20 or $30 per inspection to about $40 or $45 per inspection, but it didn’t cost the stations that much. That was their choice and how the market played out,’’ said Jakubauskas. “Some of them with relatively low volume had to choose whether or not to stay in the program.”

Some Vermont mechanics have questioned if they can be in the system if they lack access to a high-speed Internet connection. But Bloom said stations with only a telephone line could use a dialup connection, and New Hampshire officials said such a system has worked for mechanics lacking broadband in their state.

Labonte, of Bob’s Service Center, said he thinks computerized inspections are a good idea.

“We’re pretty strict, where other shops are maybe more lenient, so it won’t change things for us much,’’ he said. “I would be in favor of it, because if it’s done right, it will make the inspection process simpler. Right now, there’s an awful lot of paperwork.”

Editor’s note: For more information or to comment about the proposed change, visit http://dmv.vermont.gov or call 802-828-2000. The comment period ends April 29. Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.