LACONIA — All New Hampshire motorists have to go through it once a year.
You drive your vehicle to a dealer or a service station for an inspection and get a sticker allowing you to legally drive it for another year.
The cost is usually under $50, unless work is required such as clearing a check engine light, replacing tires with low tread or repairing the brakes.
A week ago, state police audited 55 inspection stations in Laconia, Meredith and Tilton and found that, in some cases, inspection rules were not followed.
“During the three-day audit, multiple violations of the administrative rules were discovered by members of Troop G,” police Staff Sgt. Steven Wheeler said.
“Items discovered to have occurred were failing to complete full inspections of motor vehicles that received an official inspection sticker, tampering with emissions by having the wrong vehicle plugged in at the time of inspection, an inspection station not having the required tools on hand to conduct an inspection and inspection stations having unaccounted inspected sticker backers as some of the violations documented.”
He estimated that “several dozen” violations were found from July 9-11 at the 55 local inspection stations, which ranged from small auto repair shops to large automobile dealers.
Wheeler did not immediately provide a list of the inspection stations audited, or an exact accounting of the violations that were found. He said that, depending on the severity of the infractions, penalties could include fines or removal of a station’s state certification for doing inspections.
“Sometimes there is complacency,” he said. “Some know the rules and disregard them.”
One of the things that is supposed to be checked is the aiming of the headlights.
“There is a headlight-aiming machine for this,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes we’ll see the machine in the corner with a half-inch of dust on it. It’s never used, and it’s a common infraction.”
Under the rules, tires are not supposed to extend past the wheel wells.
“Sometimes you will see people with big trucks and big mud tires and inspection stations will still put a sticker on it,” Wheeler said.
Even instances of significant rust can cause a car to fail inspection.
Modern cars have on-board diagnostics, or computer systems, that will indicate if there is a problem, often by triggering a check-engine light. The certification station must plug into this system to check for issues.
Gregory Parker, the service manager at Bayside Service in Laconia, said he gets visited once a year by a trooper who audits his certification processes.
“We sailed right through on our last visit,” he said. “But we do everything by the book and have the proper equipment.
“It’s actually good that they come in. At times they point something out for you.”
He said it’s important that vehicles get inspected annually.
“Even at once a year, and with vehicles that are maintained, there could be problems with rust, brakes or the exhaust system,” he said. “With the conditions of our roads, things can go from OK to bad pretty quickly.”
The state used to require inspections every six months. Parker said he had no problem with that system, which he said provided people with good notice of potential mechanical issues that could be repaired before they grew into larger problems.
State Rep. Charlie St. Clair, D-Laconia, said New Hampshire’s inspection program is overly rigorous.
Last year, state legislation to reduce the requirement for inspections to every other year failed to pass. Another bill that didn’t gain traction would have allowed people who buy a new car to skip inspections for the first three years.
St. Clair said the inspection requirement is more about profits for the automobile servicing industry than it is about safety.
“The lobbyists for the auto dealers in the state come out full force against this,” St. Clair said. “It’s all about the money.
“They tried to make this a scary thing, as if unless we get vehicles inspected every year, there would be death and destruction on the highway, wheels falling off.
“They say inspections are needed in New Hampshire because winters are very cruel here. Well in Alaska they don’t require safety inspections.”
St. Clair said similar arguments were made when New Hampshire changed the inspection requirement from every six months to every year.
He said that even without a yearly safety check, problems would get picked up anyway when people go to mechanics for oil changes and other regular servicing. Also, police can pull over vehicles if there is an obvious problem.
"I get it, it's revenue for these people, and mechanics from all over the state emailed me about the danger if we didn't have yearly inspections," St. Clair said. "But a lot of motorists wrote to me and said they didn't think these inspections were necessary, or they were OK with having them every other year."
According to AAA, more than 30 states do not require periodic vehicle safety inspections.
Peter McNamara, president of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association, said vehicle safety inspections protect the public.
"According to the 2017 DMV statistics, over 54,720 cars failed for bad tires," he said. "To pass, tire tread depth must be at least the thickness of a penny. Over 81,905 vehicles failed for inadequate brakes. To pass, a brake pad must be at least 1/16th of an inch thick to provide proper stopping power. When over 16 percent of the vehicles inspected are reported as failed, it is pretty obvious why annual inspections are needed. If we didn’t have such inspection laws, these unsafe vehicles would be left traveling the roadways.
"If you wonder why Belknap county has clean air, it is due in part to the annual emissions testing program which occurs at the same time as the vehicle safety inspection. If you eliminate inspections, you will increase pollution in NH and negatively impact tourism."
Items that are included in the inspection process:
Registration, plates, registration certificate and vehicle identification number.
Steering, front end and suspension.
Brakes, including parking brake.
Odometer and speedometer
Electrical system, horn and defroster
Lights and reflectors, including headlight aim
Glass, glazing and mirrors
On-board diagnostics system
Body, chassis and bumper height
Tires and wheels.
Source: New Hampshire Department of Safety, Division of Motor Vehicles