He pulled the car into the two-bay garage, honked the horn, then got out. The remainder of the inspection took five minutes.

The mechanic at Discount Auto in Auburn walked around the car a couple of times, stopping briefly at the front and the back to check the lights. Then he jacked up the right side, shook the tires and took a quick peek underneath.

After repeating the same steps on the left side, he stood up, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Looks good.”

Good enough, at least, for a new state inspection sticker.

The Honda Accord didn’t fare as well at Bonneau’s Garage in downtown Lewiston. That inspection lasted 25 minutes.

The mechanic began by checking the horn, windshield wipers and lights. He hooked a special machine to the front of the car to make sure the headlights aimed in the right direction. Then he popped the hood.


After surveying the engine, he put the car on a lift, examined every inch of every tire and checked various pipes, axles and gaskets for leaks, cracks and tears. Then he broke the news: The car failed and it would need more than $500 in repairs before he could sticker it.

One car. Twenty inspection stations. A wide range of results.

Over a one-week period, two undercover Sun Journal reporters took the same car – a 1992 Honda Accord with 135,000 miles – to 20 local mechanics licensed by the Maine State Police to do motor vehicle inspections.

Prior to the inspections, directors of the state’s Motor Vehicle Inspections Unit told the newspaper that the system requires every mechanic to follow a specific procedure. It is designed so that the outcome of the inspection should be the same no matter who does it, they said.

The newspaper’s investigation proved otherwise. The results show that the procedure — outlined in a 40-page manual that the state sells to mechanics for $5 — leaves plenty of room for interpretation.



Of the 20 mechanics who inspected the car, four placed new stickers on the windshield. The remaining 16 failed the car. Their reasons for refusing a sticker ranged from replacing one bald tire to $500 worth of safety hazards.

The mixed results raised the question of whether the state’s current system, which requires people to pay $12.50 ($18.50 in Cumberland County) a year for a car inspection or face the risk of paying a $120 fine, is the most practical and efficient way of protecting drivers’ safety. Some local mechanics don’t believe it is.

They criticized the system for having too many gray areas, for producing too little profit and for leaving them legally liable for situations that they can’t control, given the guidelines of the inspections procedure.

“Many people shop around,” said Andy Bonneau, the co-owner of Bonneau’s Garage in Lewiston. “They take their car to multiple places until they can find a place that will pass them, or at least let them off with minimal repairs.”

But the current system is better than not having safety inspections at all, he said.

“If you get rid of the system, all that means is that 100 percent of the cars on the road won’t be inspected,” he said. “The answer isn’t to get rid of the system, but to make it work properly.”


Bonneau would make the law tougher to ensure that shops don’t get away with giving stickers to cars with obvious problems. “Right now, a shop can have many licensed mechanics,” Bonneau said. “If one mechanic loses his license, four or five others in that same shop can take his place.”

Shops can lose their licenses, he said, but that doesn’t happen often. “They can claim ignorance. They can say they didn’t know what they’re people were doing. But I think if the law was enforced a little harder on the shops, they’d be more careful.”

Ansel Warner, the owner of Discount Auto, had a different suggestion for making the system more accountable: Pay mechanics fairly for their time.

“The state doesn’t pay us enough,” he said. “We have to bring the car in, jack it up, check it over. There is a lot to do for what we earn.”

Warner and Bonneau said they offer inspections as a service to their regular customers, but they can’t turn away other people.



The commander of the state’s motor vehicle inspections unit admitted that the system isn’t perfect.

Still, he believes it is one of the best in the country.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Lt. Chris Grotton. “We’re constantly trying to balance the needs of the garages with the program’s goal of safety.”

Grotton isn’t surprised that the Sun Journal got different opinions from every mechanic, given the fact that the most common identified problems, such as the tires and the CV joint, result from wear and tear.

“Those type of items can make it a little subjective,” he said. Mechanics must gauge whether the problem is severe enough to warrant failure or a mere warning that the car will need work before the next inspection. It’s a matter of individual judgment.

The inspection stations chosen for the Sun Journal’s investigation included small, family-owned two-bay garages and large chains such as VIP Auto Discount Center and Pep Boys. Some of them put the car on a lift. Others simply jacked it up. Some looked under the hood. Some didn’t. Some asked for the registration before starting the inspection, as mandated in the handbook. Others bypassed that step.


“There is a lot of gray area,” said Ron Major, a state-certified master mechanic who was hired by the Sun Journal to do a baseline inspection.

Major failed the car for several reasons, including a scratch on the windshield, two bald tires, an oil leak near the exhaust and dirt obstructing the small lights above the license plate.

He deemed those problems automatic reasons to fail the car.

Then he pointed to other areas of concern that other, more conservative mechanics may justifiably include on the list, such as cracks in an axle boot and grease seeping from the clamp connecting the boot to the joint.

“Someone could fail it for this stuff and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong,” Major said.

Most of the mechanics agreed that the 11-year-old car was in fairly good shape for its age.


“It’s good and solid,” said the mechanic at Auburn’s A Right Choice Auto Repair. “What you’re looking at is just maintenance – tires and CV boot. And those just wear out.”

Every mechanic who failed the car noted that the right rear tire was bald. Of the four who passed the car, three warned that the tire was worn but they decided it was good enough for a sticker.

“You don’t have to be a master mechanic to figure this one out,” Major said, spinning the tire with his hand to show that the treads were completely worn in some spots.

State law requires tires to have 1/16 of an inch of tread. Sections of the Honda’s right rear tire were worn to half of that, 1/32 of an inch. Major speculated that one of the tire’s steel belts was broken, accounting for the uneven wear.

Using a special tool to measure the depth of the treads, Major concluded that the other tires were not as bad and he gave them a passing grade. Other mechanics didn’t see it that way.

Some failed the car for two bad tires, some for three. And three places – Sullivan Tire and two VIP Discount Auto centers – recommended
replacing all four.


“The tires are toast,” said the mechanic at VIP on Sabattus Street in Lewiston. “I don’t mean to bum you out, but you gotta be safe.”

Although Grotton was disappointed to find out that four shops put a sticker on a car with at least one obvious violation, he was pleased that most of the mechanics failed the car for one reason or another.

Dick Perkins, the director of the state’s Highway Safety Office, had a similar reaction. “Mechanics are human, too,” Perkins said. “You are going to get different reactions and different thoughts at different stations. At least the vast majority identified the car as needing help.”

In addition to failing the right rear tire, seven of the 20 mechanics said the boot covering the CV joint was worn enough to fail the car. The CV joint connects the front right wheel to the chassis. Age and weathering had cracked the rubber boot, and grease was leaking from the clamp holding it in place. Major noted the cracks and leak but he decided they weren’t cause for failure.

By the end of the investigation, however, the cracks had erupted into a full-blown tear and the boot needed to be replaced immediately to prevent damage to the axle. Major also noted a small oil leak from the engine case. Only Bonneau’s found that leak. He added it to his list of necessary repairs, noting that the oil could easily drip on an exhaust pipe and create a fire.

“We are tough on inspections,” Bonneau, said. “I don’t apologize for that. If you just want a sticker, there are places out there that will give you one.”



Maine has required annual automobile inspections for 60 years. All vehicles registered in Maine are required to be inspected, except some antique cars and trucks, some farm vehicles and exclusive island vehicles.

In 2001, state lawmakers increased the fee from $6 to $12.50 after shop owners complained that they were working for nothing. In Cumberland County, where inspections include emissions testing, the price was raised to $18.50. The state charges mechanics $2.50 for every sticker, which means shops make at least $10 per inspection. Many shop owners claim that still isn’t enough.

“After I pay the state for the sticker and pay a man to do the job, I don’t make anything,” Warner said.

A mechanic at Warner’s shop passed the Sun Journal’s car without mentioning the bald tire.

“A mechanic is only human. He is bound to miss something,” Warner said. “When it comes to an inspection, there are a lot of gray areas. We have to look at a tire and determine if it will last all year. How are we going to know that every time?”


Overlooking a potential safety hazard or using bad judgment could have consequences. If a stickered car is involved in an accident and police discover that the accident was caused by a problem that should have been cited during the inspection, the shop or mechanic could be held liable.


Maine State Police Sgt. Jan Stetson Reynolds oversees the team of nine troopers who have been responsible for investigating complaints against inspections stations and disciplining shops that violate the law.

She cited one example in which a mechanic stickered a pickup truck with a bad muffler and no catalytic converter. Soon after, the truck was involved in a fatal accident. The state responded by suspending the mechanic’s license for six months.

Discount Auto lost its inspections license 10 years ago after the state discovered that an unlicensed mechanic put a sticker on a customer’s car. Warner reapplied for his license five years later, but his liability insurance rates went up as a result.

“Our neck is constantly in a noose,” Warner said.


Tom Doyon, the owner of Quality Care Auto, where the Sun Journal’s car failed for a bad tire and a cracked CV boot, believes the biggest problem with the current procedure is that it doesn’t require a thorough brake inspection.

The Legislature considered a proposal two years ago that would have required car inspectors to remove a front and rear tire to do a complete check of the brakes. The price of inspections would have been raised as a result, but the effort didn’t pass.

Now, mechanics must determine the condition of the brakes by simply stepping on them and listening for grinding.

“I don’t think we can do a thorough inspection without pulling the wheels,” Doyon said. “But we could be held liable if something is wrong with the brakes and they end up causing an accident.”


The state does not record the total number of complaints received each year, inspections supervisor Reynolds said. The main reason is a poor computer system, she said.


Each trooper files a monthly paper report with her. In two randomly selected reports from March, one trooper had 50 complaints while another had none.

But official complaints are not a good indicator of the number of violations, Reynolds said.

“We are not getting most offenses, I can tell you that, because a lot of people don’t complain.”

Sometimes, particularly in the case of sticker shoppers — people who take their vehicles to multiple mechanics until they pass — there is little cause for complaint.

“They’re happy. The inspection station is happy. They just got $12.50 for no work and everybody hopes they don’t get caught, and they probably won’t get caught,” Reynolds said.

However, some rival stations have blown the whistle. In one case, when a mechanic failed a car, the driver announced he was going somewhere else. When the car owner drove by later, new sticker in place, he flipped off the first mechanic, who then reported the more lenient garage.


“In the past, inspectors wouldn’t do that. It was their little community and they didn’t want to rat out a mechanic,” Reynolds said.

But the good stations are getting increasingly annoyed with the bad stations, she said.

Reynolds estimated that about half of the complaints from mechanics and drivers accuse inspection stations of passing unsafe cars, and the other half accuse mechanics of making up problems to create more work for themselves.

Until this summer, Maine state troopers were in charge of investigating the complaints. In an effort to save money, however, this job is being transferred to a team of civilians.

Grotton, the lieutenant in charge of the inspections unit, hopes the transition will have little effect on the state’s 2,500 inspection stations and 7,500 licensed mechanics.

“It is our job to license responsible individuals,” he said. “Then we have to trust that they are doing a responsible job.”

Staff writer Kathryn Skelton contributed to this report.

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