April 07, 2020

STICKER SHOCK Recent accidents raise concerns about quality of vehicle inspections

Editor’s Note: To protect the privacy of the vehicle owners and the auto shop, their names were omitted from this article. Bangor Daily News reporter Nok-Noi Hauger rode with the vehicle owner and witnessed the vehicle inspections.

It took three tries and $37.50, but by the end of the day Wednesday there was a brand-new, gray inspection sticker on the older model Jeep with its rusty floor panels, broken-off shocks, nearly failing rear brakes and leaking exhaust tied on with a metal coat hanger.

The first garage listed a page and a half of work that needed to be done on the Jeep before an inspection sticker would be issued. The second shop offered a page of items, many the same as from the first garage and some that were new.

Both auto shops took the Jeep into their garages, lifted it and looked underneath.

The third did not.

Recent events in Greenville and Corinth that resulted in a woman and a teenage girl losing their lives in tragic accidents that were related to improper inspections begs the question: How easy is it to get an inspection sticker in Maine?

The answer: easier than you might think.

The mechanic at the third garage didn’t even ask the driver to get out of the Jeep until it was time to put on the new inspection sticker.

The inspection consisted of checking the lights and turn signals to ensure they worked and paperwork.

It took, in its entirety, approximately four minutes.

“You’re kidding me,” is how Tim Oversmith, general manager of Rawcliffe’s Garage, which failed the Jeep earlier in the day, reacted when he was told another service station had issued the vehicle a sticker.

Rawcliffe’s is known locally for following the letter of the law when it comes to inspection regulations.

“We’ve turned down vehicles and then seen them parked at Shaw’s [Supermarket] with stickers,” Oversmith said Wednesday while the Jeep was being inspected. “Service stations that are not doing proper inspections are putting $12.50 worth of work into the inspection.”

Inspections cost $12.50, no matter how long they take, and Maine law requires vehicles to be inspected once a year. Inspection stations are supposed to check 16 items for safety, including brakes, suspension, lights and tires. Any one item can prevent a vehicle from getting an inspection sticker.

The Jeep failed the inspection at Rawcliffe’s for torn front wiper blades, an inoperative rear windshield cleaner, excessive play and dangerously worn track bar and upper ball joint, holes in both floorboards, multiple liquids “pouring out” of the engine and steering box, unhooked shocks, rear brake problems, an unsecured spare tire, and an unsecured and leaking exhaust system.

In addition to those faults, the second station failed the Jeep for lack of a battery restraint. All three of the service stations are in Penobscot County.

None of the inspectors noted an obvious rip in the passenger side back tire or that a rear running light was blinking on and off, two issues the 20-year-old Bangor woman who owns the Jeep thought would cause it to be rejected.

After receiving Rawcliffe’s inspection report, she was nearly in tears and said she was worried that the repairs would cost $2,000, well over the $1,300 it cost to purchase the vehicle three weeks earlier.

“I wanted to give up,” she said.

That changed after a call to her boyfriend, who reassured her that the Jeep wasn’t that bad off, and she decided to continue to look for a sticker.

Inspection tragedy

The brakes on the borrowed pickup truck that carried Linda Brown, 56, a seasonal resident of Greenville and Singer Island, Fla., to her death in Moosehead Lake in August showed signs of significant failure, police have said. According to the odometer, the vehicle had been driven 28 miles since Dave’s Automotive Services in Greenville had inspected it. After the incident, the licenses for the inspection station and for its operator, Dave Hall, were suspended for six months.

A state police examination of the vehicle that killed Tabitha Murphy, 15, of Corinth in November 2005, while she was out recruiting other girls to be cheerleaders, revealed defects that should have been corrected before the inspection sticker was issued, Lt. Christopher Grotton, Maine State Police Traffic Safety Unit director, said last week.

The vehicle had been inspected the day before the crash and had been driven a total of 66 miles since the inspection.

John Pomeroy, owner of Pomeroy’s Garage in Corinth, had his inspection license suspended for three months based on the inadequate inspection. He now has an active inspection license.

It’s common knowledge that there are certain auto shops in the state that will let a vehicle slide when it comes to inspection stickers, Grotton said.

“Does it occur? Yeah, it occurs,” he said.

The traffic safety unit regulates 2,415 auto shops, which last year issued more than 800,000 stickers in Maine, and licenses them every two years. According to state figures, 20 to 30 percent of vehicles inspected are rejected outright.

About one-third of the 906 complaints filed since January have resulted in some sort of administrative action, including the Greenville and Corinth incidents, Grotton said.

“We have suspended 41 stations,” he said. “Generally, those are six-month suspensions or less.”

Of the total number of stations, 88 either have suspended licenses or are inactive. No licenses have been revoked.

The number of stations that are sued over improper inspections is low, Penobscot County District Attorney Christopher Almy said Friday.

“It’s not very prevalent,” he said. “It doesn’t happen very often because most inspection stations comply with the law.”

Sticker safety

The operators of smaller stations that generally lie outside of a metropolitan area say they really have to watch who comes into their yard.

“If we have somebody from Old Town looking for an inspection, we look extra close,” Doug Sinclair, owner of Sinclair Auto and Towing in Carmel, said last week. “We know people are looking for an easy inspection sticker.”

Sinclair, a former Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy, admitted that he once employed an inspector who he later found out would issue stickers to cars that didn’t meet inspection criteria. Licenses for the station and for his former employee were suspended temporarily once state police discovered the illegal actions.

“We get people from as far away as Ellsworth and Orono, and we know we have to really look at it good,” Ed Littlefield, owner of Littlefield’s Welding in Newport, said last week. “People from away – it sends up a red flag.”

Both of the small garages are located off the beaten path, and their owners say people, including friends and relatives, have tried to bribe them into issuing an illegal sticker. Both said safety has to be their first concern.

“It just ain’t worth it because you have to sleep at night,” Littlefield said.

How to interpret the thick inspection manual is another issue, Sinclair said.

“Inspectors are like doctors,” he said. “Something you read could mean something different to somebody else.”

The manual questions about whether a brake pedal “feel[s] firm” and whether the vehicle “stop[s] smoothly” are examples of wording that could be perceived differently by different mechanics, Oversmith said.

“That’s one of those [that is] open to interpretation,” he said. “For $12.50, we’re not going to take rear brakes apart. If there is a suspected issue with a brake, [the vehicle] fails until it’s been looked at” and certified as safe.

Mechanics, who can make an average of $60 an hour in their trade, usually spend about half an hour on each vehicle inspection. Where the stations make their money is not from the $12.50 inspection sticker, but from necessary work to bring the vehicle up to acceptable safety standards, Grotton said.

The state is rewriting 130 pages of the current inspection manual to address some of the known problems, such as specific language defining car standards, Grotton said. The public hearing on the changes was held last month in Augusta, and the final draft should be finished by January, he said.

“We’re constantly looking to make things more clear and reasonable,” Grotton said. “I think it’s a healthy process.

“The reality is, for the most part, most technicians do a very good job,” he said.

On Wednesday, after the Jeep was rejected by two service stations and turned away by two others, the owner had given up hope that she would be able to get her vehicle inspected. Then she remembered that a friend recently got a sticker, and she picked up the phone and gave the friend a call.

Directions were given and the Jeep soon was driving away from the garage with a new sticker.

“I still think I shouldn’t be driving the car,” she said. “I’m putting myself and other people on the road at risk.

“That’s why I’ve decided to park it until I can get everything fixed. We need to take care of the issues as soon as possible because I have a 3-month-old.”

Her boyfriend said he would take the Jeep to his shop to fix the rusty floorboards and to install new shocks.

“I think it’s good she got the sticker,” he said. “Now we know what the vehicle needs. You go to a professional mechanic and get all the details, then go to a backyard mechanic to fix it.”

Correction: An article published Tuesday on Page One about inspection stickers incorrectly stated that Sinclair Auto and Towing in Carmel had its license suspended. The station’s former mechanic was given a verbal warning.

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