An information box with Sunday's front-page story about automobile safety inspections incorrectly described inspection requirements for commercial vehicles. Commercial trucks must be inspected at least once a year by a qualified third party or qualified company employee, in addition to receiving targeted inspections by state and federal authorities.
****** Getting a car to pass safety inspection in North Carolina can depend more on which garage you choose than the vehicle's actual condition - even with defects as obvious as bald tires, missing parts and broken headlights.
The state-mandated inspections are supposed to correct dangerous problems that cause crashes. The program is supposed to be uniform from station to station, and across the state.
But an investigation by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer found pass-fail rates can vary dramatically from one garage to another. And inspection stations differ even more sharply in how often they find and fix safety flaws - if they report them at all - so cars can legitimately pass inspection.
The uneven numbers reflect concerns about cheating and uncertainty about whether motorists who fork over the fees get what they pay for.
The state Division of Motor Vehicles wants to build public confidence in its inspection program after a string of political embarrassments, program changes that irked car owners and a legislative report that faulted DMV's oversight of inspection stations. Commissioner Mike Robertson said fraud is a big issue for the emissions inspections required in 48 counties and for the statewide safety tests.
During a five-month period this year, DMV investigators flagged more than 2,500 cars that passed safety or emissions checks at one station "suspiciously soon" after flunking at another. They examined most of the cars and found hundreds still had the mechanical flaws that caused them to fail inspection initially.
Nearly 600 inspection stations and technicians were charged with civil and criminal violations. And 17 car owners were charged, too - mostly with infractions that carry $50 fines.
"We determined they were station-shopping, where they knew their vehicle was inadequate - and they shopped around until they got their vehicle to pass," said Jimmie Massengill, an assistant supervisor in DMV's license and theft bureau. "I have seen cases where individuals have gone to as many as three separate stations to get their vehicles to pass."
Fewer states inspect
North Carolina instituted safety inspections in 1966 after Gov. Dan K. Moore expressed alarm over a rapid increase in highway fatalities. He blamed mechanical problems for one of every 10 crashes.
But traffic death counts have declined since then, even as the state's population has doubled.
Cars are safer now, and car parts don't wear out as fast. When police investigated 1.9 million North Carolina crashes during a recent five-year period, they reported obvious problems with brakes, tires and other safety equipment in only 1.4 percent of them.
Bob Carper, a retired traveling salesman who lives in Raleigh, says the required inspections are a waste of time and money.
"The people I associate with pretty well take care of their cars," said Carper, 67, who drives a 6-year-old Hyundai. "If my headlight goes out, I replace it. I had a brake light go out six months ago, and one of my neighbors noticed it and told me."
Other states have eliminated or relaxed safety inspection requirements in recent years. North Carolina is one of only 17 states that require safety inspections today.
In 2008, the legislature's Program Evaluation Division found no evidence that safety inspections were effective or necessary. The report said inspectors performed inconsistent work with inadequate oversight from DMV. It recommended eliminating safety inspections or exempting newer cars, which rarely fail.
John Turcotte, director of the Program Evaluation Division, and other critics point to the $106 million motorists spend annually on safety fees. Of those fees, private garages and dealerships keep $99 million for their work.
"When the government puts a burden on the public and makes them pay for it, there ought to be evidence it is effective," said Turcotte, who believes the findings of his agency's report hold true today.
Some legislators have pushed several times over the past decade to scale back the safety inspection program or end it altogether. Their efforts have met formidable opposition from trade groups representing car dealers and garages that inspect cars.
Former state Sen. Charlie Albertson, a Duplin County Democrat, embraced the 2008 report and said North Carolina's inspection program should be "put on the junk pile." He sponsored a bill to eliminate safety inspections, but it died in committee without debate.
"I was sort of dumbstruck," Albertson recalled. "Nobody wanted to look at the evidence."
This year 14 senators co-sponsored a similar proposal that met the same fate. It was buried with the help of Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican who is the Senate majority leader.
Brown owns three car dealerships that have collected $177,000 in safety inspection fees since 2008. In 2010 he received about $50,000 in campaign contributions from the auto industry.
"Most people realize safety inspections are important," Brown said.
Members of the Independent Garage Owners of North Carolina and other trade associations launched a lobbying campaign aimed at lawmakers. Groups such as the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, Automotive Service Association and Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association wrote letters against the proposal.
"They were telling them it was a safety issue, but the other issue was that it was going to destroy their business," said Bob Pulverenti, executive director of the garage owners group. "It could have been devastating to the industry."
'Everybody does it'
This year, North Carolina motorists will take 8 million vehicles to state-licensed private garages where technicians check the brakes, steering, tires, horn, lights and other parts.
Car owners whose vehicles pass are allowed to renew their auto registrations. Those who fail must pay for repairs before they can register their car.
Auto owners pay $13.60 for safety inspections, with $12.75 going to the garage. The state gets the other 85 cents.
In many North Carolina counties, safety checks are just one part of the inspection. Emissions tests tied to federal clean air rules also are required in 48 mostly urban counties for vehicles made in 1996 or after.
Motorists in those counties pay $30 for the combined safety and emissions tests. Garages keep $23.75, and the state collects $6.25.
The N&O and Charlotte Observer analyzed DMV records of 23.5 million inspections performed over 39 months - from January 2008, when the state began keeping computerized records for every inspection in all 100 counties, through March 2011.
The newspapers' analysis found:
Inspectors report they discover safety problems in one of every 10 cars. The actual number is probably higher, because many inspection garages make safety repairs without reporting them.
Three percent of cars fail inspection because of worn tires, burned-out bulbs, weak wipers and other safety flaws that are detected but not fixed.
In most cases, though, the repairs are made on the spot - and the car gets a passing grade. Inspection stations report correcting safety problems in 6.9 percent of the cars they check. But many inspectors do not mention these repairs in their online reports to DMV.
Inspectors in some rural counties rarely, if ever, fail cars for safety problems. Graham County garages performed safety inspections for about 14,000 vehicles over three years, and only two cars failed.
In the combined Triangle counties of Wake, Durham, Orange and Johnston, inspectors failed 150,128 - or 4 percent - of cars in safety inspections. The state's average failure rate is 3 percent.
The biggest disparities in pass-fail rates are within counties. Wake County had 14 stations where at least 15 percent of all vehicles were failed for safety reasons, and 137 stations where no more than 1 percent failed. At Wake County's 20 Jiffy Lube inspection stations, the failure rates ranged from 2.4 percent to 11.3 percent.
Many motorists try to take advantage of the program's shortcomings, said David Harkey, director of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.
"Neighbors and friends know which stations pass cars," Harkey said. "It doesn't take long for word to get around. Everybody does it."
Where inspectors take the trouble to report safety problems they fix for cars that eventually pass inspection, the DMV files provide a different picture.
In rural Graham County, where only two cars failed inspection, inspectors reported they corrected safety flaws on 10.5 percent - or 1,482 - of the cars they inspected, well above the average state correction rate of 6.9 percent.
"In a county like Graham, that mechanic knows who you are," said Robertson, the DMV commissioner. "That mechanic takes care of the car."
By comparison, inspectors in Wake, Durham, Orange and Johnston said they made corrections in 168,432, or only 4.5 percent of their cases.
At Tobola Automotive Shop on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh, owner Jerzy S. Tobola said his customers almost always tell him to make whatever repairs are necessary to pass inspection.
"First, I fix," Tobola said. "And after, I do the inspection. Then, I pass."
He rarely mentions the repairs on his DMV inspection reports.
Passing, with problems
DMV and its inspection program have been criticized on several fronts over the past few years.
Many motorists were vexed in 2008 when DMV eliminated the windshield stickers that reminded them when inspections were due, and realigned calendars so every driver's anniversaries for inspection and car registration fall in the same month.
Some car owners were mistakenly required to get two inspections in the same year. Computer problems forced DMV to suspend the inspection requirement for several months.
The agency had a staff of auditors assigned to catch inspectors who cheat the system, but an N&O investigation in 2007 found the auditors performed little work. DMV eliminated all 39 auditor positions this year and said it would beef up enforcement with better use of investigators and computer technology.
DMV suspended 126 inspection licenses last year for serious violations, significantly fewer than in 2009, when it handed down 207 suspensions. Stations found guilty of the most serious violations lose their inspection licenses for six months to two years.
In March, DMV investigators began focusing on cars that pass safety or emissions inspection at one garage a short time after flunking at another.
"If you failed here, how did you pass there?" Robertson said. "Typically what it shows is, you've got a bad inspection station."
Investigators followed up on 2,577 suspect cars and were satisfied that most had been properly repaired.
But they found improprieties in several hundred cases from March through July. They cited 596 stations and technicians with civil and criminal violations.
"If we had not caught them, these cars would be out running free with bald tires, bad stuff, no lights," said Massengill, the DMV license and theft bureau assistant supervisor. "I don't want to meet one of these cars on the way home."
One case involved a Wake County car owner who went to a second station after flunking inspection for windows tinted darker than the law allows.
"One of our investigators determined that the customer paid the mechanic $50 extra to pass his car with illegal window tint," Massengill said. "They were charged with felonies, because it is a felony to do that."
Wake County court records show the felony charges were dismissed in June, but the technician named in the case, who worked at Jiffy Lube on Laura Village Drive in Apex, pleaded guilty to common-law forgery and was fined $150.
Exempting newer cars?
Tony Jones manages Peace Street Inspection Center in Raleigh, which checks about 8,000 cars a year. He flunks 4.8 percent and reports corrective repairs on 10.1 percent.
Inspections don't make a big difference for drivers who already are careful to keep their cars in good repair, he said.
"Then you have the type of people that will take care of their car if they know something is wrong, and that's where we come into play," Jones said. "If we fail them for bald tires, that's putting them in a position where they have to get their tires fixed. I don't want my wife on the road and somebody could cause an accident because the tire blows out."
Frank H. Smith of Raleigh, 58, who works as a video producer, was only mildly surprised when an inspection turned up a worn serpentine belt on his 1999 GMC truck.
"I'm not one for a whole lot of government regulation," Smith said. "But people like me probably need inspections more than some others. I tend to push it a little bit. I've got a spare belt in the car, so I can change it if it goes out."
Robertson said DMV records show newer cars are less likely than older ones to have bad tires and burned-out bulbs. He said he could accept a change in the law to exempt cars no more than 3 years old, but he would worry about any move to do away with safety inspections altogether.
"How many people are you really willing to lose because of slick tires or busted tie-rod ends?" Robertson said. "I'm not sure that North Carolina and this commissioner are willing to take the chance and say we just won't do any more safety inspections, and let's see how many people we kill."
Staff researcher Maria David and Charlotte Observer staff writer Gavin Off contributed to this report.