Explaining state vehicle inspections

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In most states, vehicle inspections are mandatory for drivers to obtain periodic inspections from a licensed professional. While safety inspections are federally mandated for rail, truck, commercial bus and air transport, no such mandates exist at the federal level for passenger vehicles. However, studies indicate that nearly 2.6% of all fatal crashes between 2011 and 2016 were due to a vehicle’s pre-existing manufacturing defects that would have been caught through a state vehicle inspection.

As data illustrates the need for widespread state vehicle inspections, U.S. drivers are encouraged to stay informed on the inspection process and understand what may be required of them in order to drive legally within their state.

What are state vehicle inspections?

State vehicle inspections vary by state in terms of what is evaluated. There are three different common types of state vehicle inspections that you may encounter depending on where you live:

  • VIN inspection: This inspection verifies that the vehicle identification number (VIN) on your car matches your ownership documentation. VIN inspections are usually performed as part of the vehicle transaction process, especially during out-of-state purchases.
  • Safety inspection: During this inspection, different systems in your vehicle are carefully tested and checked to ensure they comply with current safety regulations.
  • Emissions inspection: Emissions inspections are used to help regulate excess exhaust fumes from impacting the environment. Your engine and exhaust fumes will be checked against the current EPA standards to ensure your vehicle does not exceed regulatory limits.

Each state sets its own requirements for vehicle inspections, so a safety inspection in one state may not cover all the items that the same type of inspection would address in another state. For instance, in New York, vehicle safety inspections evaluate the following:

  • Seatbelts
  • Brakes
  • Steering
  • Tires (except spare)
  • Lights
  • Windshield & Glass
  • Windshield Wipers & Blades
  • Horn
  • Mirrors
  • Fuel Leaks

By contrast, Louisiana’s state vehicle inspections are much more comprehensive, analyzing the following:

  • Brakes
  • Speedometer/Odometer
  • Mirrors
  • Seatbelts
  • Steering
  • Floor pan
  • Parking brakes
  • Horn
  • Lights
  • Windshield wipers & washers
  • Windshield & glass
  • Body & sheet metal
  • Fenders
  • Bumpers
  • Doors & windows
  • Hood latch
  • Wheels & tires
  • Suspension & shock absorbers
  • Exhaust & emission
  • Gas cap pressure

Always refer to your state’s vehicle inspection requirements to find out what items will be reviewed during the inspection process. In some cases, it may be necessary to seek repairs from a qualified mechanic to bring your vehicle up to standards in order to pass inspection.

State inspection requirements

Every state sets different inspection requirements for its residents, but vehicle inspections can get even more granular as different counties and ZIP codes are able to set their own requirements, as well. For example, in California, it’s mandatory to have your vehicle emissions inspected once every two years if you live in one of the 41 counties in which such inspections are required. While each inspection is different, some requirements typically appear across all states in which vehicle inspections are mandated, including:

  • Vehicle & driver information: Prior to the vehicle’s physical evaluation, your state inspector will typically verify your title, registration and proof of valid car insurance to ensure your vehicle is up-to-date on all state legal requirements.
  • Exterior: After your information is verified, the inspector will then check your license plate to ensure it is properly secured to the vehicle, along with your windshield, windows, doors, wiper blades and exterior lights.
  • Interior: Once the exterior inspection is completed, they will move to the vehicle’s interior, checking your steering wheel, brakes and seatbelts.
  • Engine: From the interior, the inspector will move to your engine to check your exhaust, fuel, transmission, battery and coolant, among other features. This is also the point in which emissions testing is typically conducted.
  • Chassis: Finally, the inspector will evaluate the undercarriage of your vehicle to inspect shocks, coil springs, axles and frame for excess damage. Your tires may also be inspected during this portion of the inspection.

Exactly how thorough your vehicle inspection is depends on the state in which you live. Be sure to refer to your state’s vehicle inspection requirements regularly to avoid failing to pass, which can affect your ability to drive legally on the road.

State inspection costs

Vehicle inspections come at a price, which can also vary from state to state, and may be made more expensive by additional processes required in order to obtain an inspection. For example, in North Carolina (and other states), residents are required to renew their vehicle registration before they can have the car inspected, adding to the overall associated costs of an inspection.

The cost of vehicle inspections also depends on which specific inspections are required, and at what intervals. For instance, California residents must perform annual emissions inspections on their vehicles, which can range widely in price (some estimates running between $100-$300+) because they are conducted out of privately owned businesses. In general, however, emissions tests will likely cost more for vehicles older than 1997. By contrast, New York’s annual safety and emissions car inspections are limited and only cost a combined total of $37 depending on the vehicle type and where the inspection is completed.

Vehicle inspections and car ownership

If you live in a state that requires vehicle inspections, it’s critical that you comply with these mandates to avoid fines and tickets. Drivers caught driving without having completed the required car inspections in their state can receive a ticket for lapsed inspection. Even if you aren’t pulled over, an officer could issue a ticket if you are parked in an urban area where traffic police frequently look for parking violations and other citations. Tickets and fines can continue to grow in amount and severity for each day you fail to complete the mandatory inspection.

In addition to fines and tickets, drivers could suffer consequences with insurance companies due to non-compliance. Some insurance carriers may require policyholders to remain in compliance with their state vehicle inspection requirements in order to maintain their policy. Failure to complete an inspection could, therefore, result in non-renewal of coverage or higher premiums if you have a carrier that mandates car inspections. Additionally, you may be unable to renew your license plates or vehicle registration if you do not complete a car inspection first. Review your state’s vehicle inspection requirements carefully to ensure you remain in compliance with current guidelines.

Frequently asked questions

What if my car fails inspection?

In most cases, if your car fails the state vehicle inspection, you will need to have the issue repaired or corrected by a qualified mechanic in order to undergo the inspection again and pasas. Some states, such as Rhode Island, give drivers 30 days to repair the issue that caused their inspection failure, offering them one free retest within the 30-day period. Refer to your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to understand what actions to take following a failed car inspection.

Where can I have my vehicle inspected?

This depends on the state in which you live. In some states, vehicle inspections are performed at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Other states offer inspections through private organizations, allowing drivers to choose the mechanic that best meets their needs.

Are there exceptions to state car inspection requirements?

In some states, there may be inspection exemptions for select vehicles. For instance, in North Carolina, vehicles older than 35 years are exempt from safety and emissions tests, as well as model years 1995 and older, and all diesel-operated vehicles. Check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to find out if your vehicle is required to undergo inspection.