Pennsylvania car owners have it rough when it comes to inspections for passenger cars and light trucks.
Virginia does not require a road test. Maryland and Ohio do not even require annual inspections.
It can be a surprise for newcomers to the state who are not used to inspections or expect them to be done in less than 30 minutes.
“A thorough inspection takes about 50 minutes to an hour,” said Eric Dumbaugh, who has inspected cars for more than 10 years and works at Butler County Ford.
Customers should not expect the mechanic to work much faster than that. They're not allowed to. The Pennsylvania Vehicle Inspection and Equipment Regulations allow only two car inspections per hour.
“Every vehicle has to be road tested in Pennsylvania so you can check the safe operation of the vehicle,” said Marshall Thompson. He has been the service manager at Butler County Ford for more than 10 years and has worked at the dealership for 32 years.
The dealership has seven certified inspection mechanics who can inspect cars, light trucks and medium-duty trucks up to 26,000 pounds. They have lots of experience finding problems during vehicle inspections.
“Fifty to 60 percent of vehicles in our shop need something to pass inspection,” said Thompson. “Items wear out.”
He said the most common issues on inspections are maintenance issues, for example, with brakes, tires and suspension components.
There are other things that come up such as owners who try to pass inspection with jagged edges on the car's body or bumpers that hang down. These will not pass inspection because they can injure someone walking past the car or damage a nearby car.
Using duct tape to cover a rough spot or to hold the bumper on is a red flag for the mechanic.
“What's it holding on?” said Dumbaugh.
According to Dumbaugh, something as small as one license plate bulb can prevent a car from passing inspection.
Among the most unusual things he has seen are adaptations for car horns when the factory horn no longer works. Occasionally an owner will add another switch so the horn will sound.
Dumbaugh said sometimes these cars can pass inspection if the switch works and if it is quickly and easily accessible.
“I've actually seen a couple guys with two wires to spark together,” said Dumbaugh.
Those vehicles did not pass inspection.
The inspection mechanic uses specialized equipment — a digital micrometer for the rotors, a drum micrometer for the inside of the brake drum, a headlight aimer, a brake thickness gauge and a tread depth gauge.
Dumbaugh said car inspection is not a measure of how well the car functions. Instead, it determines if the car meets minimum requirements.
“It keeps the dangerous ones off the road,” said Dumbaugh.
Thompson said inspections have not changed tremendously over the years. However, today's inspections do include checking the electronics controlling wipers, lights, steering, brakes and doors.
Jesse Eckstein, the most recently certified inspection mechanic at the dealership, added that it is about safety and not about things that make a car easier to use.
“Back-up sensors are not really a safety issue. They are more a convenience,” said Eckstein.
He became a certified inspection mechanic in December. As an automotive technician, he was eligible to become certified and took an evening course at Butler County Area Vocational-Technical School. The course has six classes that include both written and hands-on exams.
Until recently, certified inspection mechanics were certified once and then simply renewed their licenses every three years. New regulations may require more frequent certification.
Car owners can do a few things to help with the inspection.
“Come to the dealership with a valid registration and insurance card,” said Dumbaugh.
Dumbaugh and Thompson agreed that the inspector should not have to dig through debris in the car and other papers in the glove compartment to find these documents.
“It's a courtesy to have your car clean,” said Eckstein.
He said mud and gunk on the undercarriage makes it harder to inspect the car. If the mechanic has to clean the car first, the inspection will take more time.
When the inspection is done, cars that pass get bright, brand new stickers. For a failing car, the owner gets a list of repairs required and can request an explanation.
“Nothing is a dumb question,” said Dumbaugh. “The question you don't ask is the question that gets you into trouble.”