The Maryland Vehicle Inspection Fiasco

by Alan J. Claffie In the great state of Maryland, cars have to go through a thorough safety inspection when their titles change hands. This means when a used car is sold, it gets inspected. Unlike other states, though, the Old Line State doesn't require further inspections as long as the car stays with the same owner. So while cars in Virginia and Pennsylvania and pretty much everywhere else get scrutineered on an annual or bi-annual basis, ensuring to some degree that it's in some semblance of proper working order, a Maryland car can fall into complete disrepair until either an eagle-eyed policeman sees something obviously wrong and issues a fix-it ticket and resulting inspection, or something important fails and sends the car and its unsuspecting occupants into a erilous journey.

Where each reader stands on this issue depends on what kind of car owner each is. Those who keep up on their car's maintenance and have it checked out by a trusted mechanic periodically probably wish there were annual inspections to make sure everyone else's car was as in as good a shape as theirs. Those who have high-mileage clunkers, though, thank their lucky stars that they only have to squeak their questionable rides through the process that one time and then they can let those rides fall into the expcted state of disrepair.

We here run hot-and-cold on the issue. The majority of the fleet are nearly new so the odds that one of them will start to deteriorate to the point where it's not going to pass are pretty slim, and it'd be nice to know the guy riding next to you doing 80 on the Beltway probably doesn't have bald tires wiggling through loose tie rod ends and not enough brakes to stop him in the eventual case he realizes he has a problem.

The number of cars on Maryland's roads with burnt-out headlights or taillights would probably be cut by two-thirds at any given time.

On the other hand, we learned the hard way that dealing with Maryland inspection procedures once in a car's ownership is probably a good thing.

The Miata we bought has been tweaked for better handling by its previous owner. He used good stuff: Apex springs and KYB shocks. It also rides on 15x7 Enkei RPF1 rims and the combination yields a car that handles quite better than a stock Miata, and those cars were pretty good corner-carvers right out of the box.

As a result of the suspension changes, the car sits a little lower than stock. While I haven't parked it next to an unmodified equivalent, by the eyeball it's not dropped that much. The wheels don't tuck up into the fenders, for example. But the car's being lowered led to a month-long battle that left this motorist questioning the validity and integrity of the state's inspection system and the independent garages that partially administer it.

I think it was December 7 when I took the car in for what I thought was going to be an easily-passed inspection. The front end was tight, the body was solid, the brakes were spot-on and the handbrake held the car still on an incline. There were no warning lights illuminated on the dashboard and the exhaust was quiet with no leaks. I had just replaced the tires with new Kuhmos, so I asked myself, "What could possibly go wrong?" as I parked it in front of the Mr.Tire shop near the mall in Waldorf.

I watched the car as it was examined. I overheard the mechanics discussing the car's specifications and capabilities, wondering if the paint was an original color, and praising how clean it was for the sloppy weather we'd been enjoying. As one removed a front wheel as the car was on the left, he commented on how light the tire/rim package was. It was being checked out by Car Guys, and I thought it was in good hands.

Then I overheard one say, "It's got lowering springs. You have to have factory springs."

I didn't feel as enthusiastic about the practice after I heard that. I went to sit down and it wasn't long after that when the shop manager, I assume, came to tell me tha the car was rejected.

The car failed on three counts: the wiper blades were hard and brittle, the accessory drive belts were showing wear, and those darn lowering springs. Like a good, helpful, and perhaps opportunistic shop manager, he was quite willing to work up an estimate to fix the wipers and belts, but as it was now Friday evening, he said, "I'll have to wait until Monday to get a price on a set of springs from Mazda."

I declined the offer and took my miserable failure of a car home to sulk. What options did I have? I could try another shop and see what that one said, but at $80 a pop I couldn't afford too many similar rejections before finally finding a shop willing to overlook those oh-so illegal springs. Members of the Chesapeake Area Roadsters, the Miata club I joined after buying the car, were quite helpful in saying that the shop might have wrongly flunked the springs. One member gave me the phone number of the state police's division of vehicle inspection and/or compliance.

The first person I spoke to at that number said that lowering springs were not a failable offense, though the car in question could not be so low that any part of the car could fall below the bottom of the lugnuts. Eyeballing my other car, a completely unmodified Hyundai Tiburon that wouldn't pass that test, I asked for clarification and was put on hold.

The second person I talked to had to be told the whole story from the start. He also said that lowering springs were OK as long as the car passed the height requirement, which was that no part of the car could fall below the bottom of the rim. The Miata appeared to pass this test, so I was given the name and number of the state policeman in charge of vehicle inspections.

I explained my plight to the officer and his first response was that suspension modifications were not legal. Hoo boy, I thought, does anyone there actually know? Don't they talk to each other? Exacerbating this problem is that the inspection regulations and guidelines are not published online, at least not anywhere I could find.

The officer eventually did agree with the guys on the phone in saying that aftermarket springs were fine in the eyes of the state. He also quoted a completely different height requirement: the middle of the headlight has to be at least 24 inches off the ground.

A quick measure revealed the Miata's headlight centers were a few inches higher than 24 inches, and the officer agreed to look at the car when he could swing by.

In the time between that call and the officer's visit I dropped by Mr.Tire. I told the manager about all the conversations I've had with official-type people and how all of them expressed surprise that a shop would fail a car because it had lowering springs. I wasn't expecting them to take back everything they said up to that point and offer a new inspection there and then, I just wanted them to know I was doing my homework.

The manager acknowledged that the car was probably fine regauding height rules, but the shop's policy is to fail anything that comes in with modified suspension, whether it's been lowered or raised. He went on to say that they also fail anything with aftermarket tint, even if the tint is legal according to the state's regulations (35% light transmission). The state, he said, will sometimes try to sneak a marginal car through a shop to check on it, and if the shop passes that car, the shop is subject to a $25,000 fine. So they play it safe.

This, of course, is completely bogus. There's a reason there are quantifiable specifications mandated by the state, and that's to make the pass-or-fail decision completely objective. If a car meets specifications, it should pass - it doesn't get much simpler a concept than that. But Mr.Tire won't play by those rules. They'll gladly take $80 out of your pocket but they won't do the job. If anything is marginal, they'll wimp out and make you have to do the legwork with the state to do what Mr.Tire should have done in the first place. Now we know, and now we'll know not to go to Mr.Tire for anything down the road since they demonstrated a willingness to only do half the job for the full price.

But I digress.

I left Mr.Tire a little aggravated but still confident that all will end up with things working out in my favor.

When the policeman came by the house he looked under the car, measured the headlight, and showed me the book of motor vehicle inspection regulations where the suspension and headlight height stuff is listed. He wrte the code and page number on the back of a business card along with the note "This vehicle passes". He signed it and that was it.

A few days later, Mr.Tire re-inspected the car and gave me an inspection certificate. This went right to the registry where the registration was renewed, making the car legal and free and clear for the next two years.

Although I just got a notice in the mail saying that now the car has to get its emission system checked out. I wonder what fun unforeseen complications might arise out of that.

Lessons learned from this little episode are abundant.

The state could make the whole process a lot simpler by producing some sort of easily-accessible document that not only outlines what has to be checked during an inspection, but, for each item, the means of checking and the minimum whatever needed to pass.

Th state could also do a better job of making the garages do a complete inspection by sending modified, but legal, cars through unsuspecting shops. Just like the manager of Mr.Tire told me about shops being subject to fines if they pass cars that shouldn't have, they should also fine garages that fail cars that shouldn't have. It's not right for the shops to charge full price when they're only motivated to do half the job, with the second half of the job being telling the paying customer to go to the state police for clarification or, even worse, trying to drum up more business for the shop by finding 'flaws' that don't need to be fixed, but nonetheless the garage will be quite happy to fix said flaws... for a price.

No garage would be willing to put up with this latter point, which makes my next suggestion a lot easier to implement: have the state take over the entire inspection process. They already do this for emissions checks, so the concept can't be completely foreign to them. Take the independent garages out of the equation and not only does their profit motive go away, but the state-run inspection station will have the last word on what passes and what fails without sending the consumer on a wild goose chase.

I only have one suggestion for how Mr.Tire can improve things, and that's to go out of business. What had been a pretty decent shop in the past - swapping tires, changing belts, brake jobs, oil changes, and the inspection of a different car some years ago - has fallen into the category of places to no longer do business with. Their unwillingness to perform a fair inspection took five years of goodwill and chucked it into the trash. The search for a decent place to get our cars serviced continues.

Thank goodness this inspection business only happens once and then it's done and over with. If I had to fight this battle on an annual basis I'd probably just sell the car and forget about the whole deal.

Send Feedback Via Email

Return to Front Page