Editorial: Inspections warranted

A recurring push to eliminate Maine’s annual inspection law for non-commercial motor vehicles is again being debated in the Legislature.

Critics of the law cite the burden on impoverished Mainers unable to afford basic automotive transportation, let alone make expensive repairs necessary to be compliant with minimum vehicle standards.

Rougher roads tax older vehicles. This year, potholes and frost heaves have never been more apparent. Vehicles that regularly travel on Maine Department of Transportation-maintained thoroughfares are exposed to heavy calcium and salt brine applications to remove snow and ice. These corrosive materials are kryptonite to today’s modern aluminum, magnesium and steel cars, creating harmful rust in as little as four or five years on many of today’s latest automotive products.

Annual motor vehicle inspections are meant to find issues that owners are unaware of, or choose to ignore, that could create hazards for all of the operators using our roads. Failing brakes, broken suspension pieces or faulty steering components don’t always signal the date of their ultimate failure so that you can create a Plan B and not kill yourself — or someone else.

Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are among the remaining 17 states that require annual vehicle inspections. It is not a perfect system; few are. There is the rare unscrupulous garage operator who creates unnecessary repairs and the mechanic who fabricates fake stickers or does perfunctory inspections that ignore obvious inspection failures. Both undermine individual motoring safety and the intent of the law to ensure safe vehicles for all Mainers.

Changes could improve the law. Inspection failures could receive a 90-day extension to remedy problems, a yellow card displayed like the ones you see at a soccer match. These would indicate proof of compliance and give economically stressed drivers an option to replace or repair a vehicle that perhaps should not be on the road. There could also be a tip line for drivers to submit comments to the state police (they issue inspection licenses) about mechanic shops that exploit their inspection privileges. Occasional shop inspections would help eliminate bad apple operators, which is as important as eliminating unsafe, bad apple cars.

Maybe the law should change to biennial inspections for a larger fee. Or, if the Legislature continues to wrestle with this topic, put the decision on the ballot and Mainers can demonstrate how they feel about road safety.

Mechanics don’t make much money performing the necessary steps to reach vehicle compliance. Smart mechanics create relationships to maintain their customers’ cars and trust, helping them understand the issues and alternatives. Consumers always have the option of second opinions, regardless of what the first inspection renders for a decision.

Driving is a privilege, not a right. We all share in the responsibility of making sure we operate safely — in attitude, performance and the soundness of our vehicles. Given our climate and conditions, the diversity of our driving fleet, plus the age of our driving fleet, keeping Maine’s vehicle inspection law should land on the side of safety first.

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