The Sticker Scam

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I’ve got a friend who owns a car repair shop. He’s an officially authorized state safety inspector. The guy who goes over your vehicle and gives you a sticker (well, after you pay for it) if your car passes muster.

The other day I was hanging out over at the shop, chewing the fat with him while he was inspecting someone’s car. A minivan, actually. All four tires were nearly bald. Two of them had absolutely no outer sidewall tread left; the shoulders were as smooth as glass.There was still some tread left on the inner section of the tires, though it was razor thin.

Fail – right?

Pass, actually.

My friend explained. State law says an individual tire has to have the treadwear bars showing across the entire length of the tread and in several sections of the tire before it fails. In other words, a tire can be partially bald – even have a complete flat spot – and still be legal even though it’s obviously not safe. A tire such as the tires on this particular minivan would, for example, be very likely to hydroplane because there’s insufficient tread depth to dissipate the water on the road. But technically – legally – my friend could not fail the vehicle. All he could do was note on the customer’s receipt that the tires were worn to the limit of legality – and advise him that he really ought to consider getting new tires. Soon.

Case two:

My friend told me about brake inspection procedure. The law – written by bureaucrats and politicians, not technicians or even people who do their own oil changes – says he can’t fail a car for brake problems even if the area around the wheel cylinders (a hydraulic piston with rubber seals) is clearly moist – sure evidence of a leak. And if a hydraulic system such as your car’s brakes is leaking, it means your brakes probably aren’t working right – or soon won’t be. But my friend can’t fail you unless he sees drips – not merely evidence of moisture. Because he’s not allowed to check further. He – by law, as he explained it to me – cannot probe/pull back or otherwise look behind the rubber dust boots on the wheel cylinders to check to see why the area around there is moist. Because bureaucrats – people who know nothing about cars or how they work – decided this would result in possible damage to the rubber dust boots, which (apparently) had annoyed some influential (but car-ignorant) muckey-mucks, who put pressure on the appropriate legislative body to have the law changed so as to forbid an inspector like my friend from probing further. Even though any sign of moisture around a wheel cylinder is clear evidence of a leak. A slow leak or a small leak, perhaps. But a leak, nonetheless – and bad news, if you give a damn about being able to stop.

The Law doesn’t give a damn about that. What it does give a damn about, is safety theater – making the vehicle owner who goes in for the mandatory inspection feel “safe” if his car is duly stickered. Even if, in fact, it may not be (safe).

My friend finds it all very frustrating. He’s a conscientious guy and tries to tell people, based on his expert opinion as a master mechanic, that they probably ought to get their brakes fixed, or buy a set of tires. But he still has to pass their vehicles, based on the non-expert standards and procedures set forth in the state’s “book.” Or, if his expert opinion is trumped by the non-expert opinion of a cop. In my state (Virginia) the state safety inspection system is overseen by the state police – not the DMV (not that that would be any improvement – but still). Every once in awhile, a state cop shows up at my friend’s shop to look around. The cop will also arbitrate disputes, as when a vehicle owner contests a “failed” inspection. The interesting thing is the cop is, well… a cop. He’s a law-enforcer. Not an ASE Master Technician or even a Do-it-Yourselfer. Yet his opinion in a dispute over a technical question becomes the Final Word.

Most people who bring their vehicles in for the safety theater performance have no idea about all this. They just assume that if their vehicle gets a sticker why, it must be safe since, after all, the sticker says so. The sticker absolves them of all further responsibility from making sure that their vehicle is in fact safe – sticker or not. For the next year, people like the owner of the minivan with the near-bald tires will motor on – because that sticker is good for a full year, even if the tires may not be “good” for more than another month. Same story with the brakes. So long as they “passed” yesterday, no need to think about them tomorrow. Or next month. Or six months from now, when the little leak becomes a big one and the system loses hydraulic pressure during a panic stop and you pile-drive into the car ahead that slowed down unexpectedly.

But hey, your car “passed.”

The point to take away from all this is simple: Don’t assume your car – or one you’re thinking about maybe buying – is in perfect (or even good) working order just because there’s a sticker on the windshield.

It’s ultimately up to you to be sure.

Reprinted with permission from

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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