Sticker Shock: Vt.’s New Inspection Rules ‘Long Overdue,’ but Raise Concerns

  • At Watson's Automotive in East Thetford, Vt., Jim Ward inspects a truck on Feb. 10, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bob Watson, owner of Watson's Automotive, talks to a customer on Feb. 10, 2017, in East Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Ward uses a tablet to do an inspection on a truck at Watson's Automotive in East Thetford, Vt., on Feb. 10, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2017

East Thetford — Kneeling beside a silver Subaru Legacy in his Route 5 garage, Bob Watson struggled to point his new tablet device at the VIN sticker affixed to the car door.

He slowly moved the tablet up and down the car, trying to find the right spot as its camera strained to focus on the sticker, leaving Watson looking at a fuzzy screen — until he realized he was holding the device upside down.

“It’s all about learning how to do it. There’s definitely a learning curve,” Watson said, as the device finally beeped and displayed a crystal clear image.

His garage, Watson’s Automotive Service, is one of the first in Vermont to install new technology as part of regulations meant to modernize motor vehicle inspections. And Watson’s new tablet is at the heart of the program.

Mechanics in the Green Mountain State are expected to purchase — at a cost of $1,624 — a tablet, printer, wireless router and a device that looks similar to a power cable and plugs into most new vehicles through an on-board diagnostics port, or OBD, generally found under the steering wheel. In return, they’ll be doing away with hand-written inspection forms and carbon paper records.

“I don’t have any problem with the new system,” Watson said. “It’s probably long overdue.”

But while some mechanics say the state’s new regulations bring vehicle inspections into the 21st century, others contend the new system they’re being asked to adopt is too costly, gives them too little leeway and puts low-income Vermonters in a bind.

The system is designed to make inspections easier on mechanics while also providing the state with useful information, said Jennifer Pittsley, a project manager at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We don’t have a lot of data. We are unable to tell you the top reason of a vehicle not passing an inspection,” she said.

So last year, the state contracted with Pasadena, Calif.-based Parsons Corp., a technical, engineering, construction and management support services company that provides similar services to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Louisiana and Ontario.

When a car goes for an inspection in Vermont, a mechanic is required to perform a road test and physically check important parts including the front end, lights, exhaust, suspension, wheels and brakes. They’re also required to run an OBD test, which evaluates the check engine light and emissions, for cars built during or after 1996.

Under the new system, those tests will still take place. But instead of checking off boxes on several paper forms, mechanics will check them off on the tablet.

Motorists can expect to pay about $50 for an inspection in the White River Junction area. The state charges a $6 fee to garages for each sticker, and the new system will add a charge of $2.21 per inspection.

Across the Connecticut River, New Hampshire uses the OBD system as well, and mechanics are expected to input a safety and emissions information into a computer system shared with the DMV in Concord. Other information is still filed by paper, said New Hampshire DMV spokesman Larry Crowe.

Drivers in New Hampshire can expect to pay anywhere between $20 and $50 for an inspection that tests similar safety features as Vermont.

The only technology change in the near future is a system that allows stickers to be printed right at a garage, Crowe said. Inspection stations now purchase stickers and return the empty book back to the state, he said.

Vermont’s new system will be in place by March 20, Pittsley said, and won’t change the overall rules for inspections — just the technology behind them.

But the new rules are too burdensome for small shops that perform few inspections, said Antoine Lutz, who owns Lutz Motorworks in Chelsea and works only on Volvos made before 1994. The new system is too expensive, he said, given that he performs only about 30 inspections a year.

“It’s going to put quite a few of us small shops out of the running for doing state inspections,” Lutz said. “If you’re a one-bay shop, it’s a pretty big expense.”

Pittsley said Vermont offers a financing option for the tablet and related equipment, allowing mechanics to pay over a three-year period. The state chose to go with a tablet-based system to save mechanics money, she said. Other states sometimes require garages to purchase large computers for inspections.

“We worked really hard to keep the costs down and be as reasonable as possible,” Pittsley said, adding she understands that even with their efforts, some inspection stations will decide to stop providing the service.

Recently, the state received notice from 25 shops that will stop performing inspections in the near future, but Pittsley said she doesn’t know how many are because of the new system.

Money isn’t Lutz’s only concern, however. He also worries the new system could take discretion away from mechanics and ultimately hurt those who can’t afford costly repairs every time a sensor goes awry.

Lutz recently spoke with a colleague who tried, time and time again, to repair a malfunctioning safety sensor in an older car that was worth only about $2,000. Eventually, the mechanic ordered $2,000 in parts to try to repair the sensor before coming the conclusion the problem wasn’t with parts, but with the car’s computer.

While the fact that the sensor light was on in itself isn’t a safety problem, the new inspection system will “put those cars off the road,” he said.

Watson expressed similar worries. The tablet system asks garages for photographs taken during the inspection and is designed to better capture when there’s a problem, meaning the days of mechanics looking the other way on electronic malfunctions are over, even when the car might be mechanically safe.

“You’ve got a senior citizen that is trying to make ends meet and this is their car to get to the grocery store and the post office, and now all of a sudden it won’t pass inspection,” Watson said. “You’re going to probably find 10 or 15 percent of the cars that are registered in Vermont (won’t pass inspection).”

As mechanics adjust to the new system, some say the learning curve also could add more time to the inspection process.

“Normally, right now, it takes about 20 minutes to a half an hour. But it’s probably going to increase because you have to stop and take pictures,” said Rob Merchand, who owns Merchand Brothers in White River Junction. “It’s going to take a while to get oriented to the process of them feeding back all this information so the state will issue a sticker or not issue a sticker.”

While he’s not happy about the change, Merchand said, the inspection process is important for cars, especially in New England, where cars take a beating in the winter from snow, ice and salt.

“I don’t know how some states have no inspections,” he said. “We’ve literally had tie rod ends and ball joints fall off right in the shop. You back the car up and ‘bang,’ it’s on the floor.”

Prices for inspection stickers will also likely increase because of the additional cost for each inspection. Watson said his shop used to charge $40 for a sticker, but recently raised the price to $50.

The thought of a more expensive inspection sticker didn’t please Joe Hickey, who was inflating his tires at Bob’s Service Center in White River Junction on Thursday.

“It’s another expense and you look at how much they’ve gone up in the last 10 years, 15 years from $25 to $50,” he said.

Bob Perkins, who owns the service center, expects to add about $5 to the current $49 inspection fee, which is made up of a $6 dollar state sticker fee and labor costs.

“Every time we do an inspection, pass or fail, with this tablet, I’m charged $2.21,” Perkins said. “There’s certainly increased costs with this thing.”

His garage ordered two tablet systems, getting a discount of about $225 on the second one. The shop does about 1,400 inspections a year, sometimes performing multiple inspections at the same time, leading Perkins to try to figure out how to share two tablets among several employees.

“I won’t be able to do three inspections at the same time,” he said. “I can do a physical check of the car while someone else is using the tablet, and then I’d have to go in and start the process with the tablet” when the other mechanic is finished.

Although Watson has similar fears that the system would be a “little bit of a pain and a hassle,” he sees the tablet as a tool mechanics might someday come to rely on.

“This is how things are done now,” he said, holding up the device.

“When the computer first came out and we were ordering online I was like, ‘Why can’t we just do it our way?’ ” Watson said. “We couldn’t run this business without one now.”

Editor’s note: More information about the new inspection program can be found at http://bit.ly/2kU9waC. Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.