As other states modernize, Maine car safety inspection lags behind

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Lt. Bruce Scott of the Maine Police Department of Transportation Safety is examining millions of inspection stubs stored at the Augusta inspection office. Gregory Wreck/Staff Photographer

The ceremony begins each year after Thanksgiving and ends before Christmas. A blizzard of paper, envelopes, and postage is more easily measured in tons than pages.

By New Year’s Day, hundreds of thousands of Maine vehicle inspection stickers will be packed into thousands of envelopes and mailed to over 2,600 repair shops and auto dealerships across the state.

From a small state office in Augusta, a small team of state police officers manually count and file more than a million sheets of paper to keep the safety inspection program functioning. It was a former relic and now he is one of the last relics of its kind.

Of the 15 states that require vehicle safety inspections, Maine is one of three states that enforce paper forms and handwritten forms. Despite efforts to modernize the office, state legislators and governors have resisted spending money or raising user fees, especially in election years.

“It’s a pretty inefficient system by today’s standards,” said Lt. Bruce Scott, who oversees the operation. “It worked 25 years ago, but the digital age has arrived. You really have to push yourself forward.”

Beyond increasing efficiency, modernized inspection systems offer regulators a way to prevent fraud and sniff out bad actors. Other states are using automated tools to alert them to questionable practices and collect real-time data on what’s happening on the ground. These tools aren’t foolproof, but they do provide some defense against “sticker shopping” for mechanics passing cars where others would fail.

In Vermont, mechanics use tablet computers to check vehicle components. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the system has also gone digital, with printers installed in every garage to print a sticker with the vehicle’s unique identification number and registration details. Only Missouri and West Virginia still run paper-based systems like Maine.

For years lawmakers have tried to repeal or modify Maine’s system to allow waivers or change it to biennial stickers. , all ended in failure.

An inspection sticker waiting to be mailed to an inspection station at the Maine Police Department in Augusta. Gregory Wreck/Staff Photographer

Without new investment, all the work of distributing stickers remains a chore. Since the inspection program offices do not have loading docks or commercial entrances, the boxes of stickers are hauled inside from pallets, stacked waist high in the empty office, and carefully sorted by serial number. Stickers are distributed to repair shops and car dealerships in batches in numerical order.

The sticker will then be emailed to you.

Staff use printed lists and highlighters and pens to keep track of which locations received which stickers.

To complete this process, the repair shop or dealer must mail you a receipt, called a stub sheet, with handwritten information indicating which sticker is on which car.

When the stub sheets arrive at Augusta, employees sort them by station and stack them on rolling shelves arranged by station number and year. Staff keep track of over 4 million sheets of paper (only 3 years worth) on a series of rolling shelves. Although this filing system is carefully organized, it is a fragile system that can be destroyed by a strong gust of wind.

Every January, staff remove the oldest year’s documents (approximately 1.3 million pages) to make room for the 1.3 million new sheets (rough number of sticker sheets mailed each year) .

Years ago, Scott tried to speed up the process by affixing barcodes to stickers and processing them with a scanner. But the state gave up on the effort because the glossy coating on the paper made the machine unworkable, but the barcode remained, he said.

All state laboratories are required to keep a copy of the stub sheet on hand for two years so that police officers investigating an accident have easy access to recent inspection information, but not all state laboratories. Laboratories don’t do that.

Going digital reduces paperwork for inspection stations, but may also require the purchase of new equipment, depending on the state’s choice of digital system.

John Kimball, an inspection mechanic since 1965 and owner of Kimball’s Garage in South Portland, said the new system has been ready for years. He doesn’t like the idea of ​​having to pay for state-mandated new gear out of his own pocket, but it’s part of doing business, like replacing a broken tool in a workshop. said.

He spends hours each week copying and mailing documents.

“People are unaware of the paperwork involved,” says Kimball. “I will pay for the vehicle inspection. You will not get paid for the paperwork.”

The Maine Police Department vehicle inspection room in Augusta has a fake vehicle inspection sticker. Gregory Wreck/Staff Photographer

system of trust

The main sticker is also easy to forge. Some of the attempts are hand drawn and laughable, while others are almost indistinguishable from the real McCoy.

In 2010, narcotics agents running search warrants came across a counterfeit sticker operation that rivaled the quality of the state’s own stickers. A fake sticker with the fake mechanic name Jim Wilkins and a fake station number came with an application guide and is now posted in the inspection room.

“If you don’t follow these instructions exactly, you’ll be at your own risk if you have to stop and pay a hefty fine,” it warns.

A small number of state police will investigate complaints, conduct unannounced on-site inspections, and audit laboratories for compliance with regulations.

Garages will be targeted for burglaries as long as Maine stickers are distributed in batches, says Scott, the state inspector. Thieves get about $100 per sticker on the black market.

And without digital systems, Maine has no way to collect and analyze statewide data or automatically flag questionable inspection practices like other states do. Did he spend 20 minutes or 20 seconds inspecting the vehicle before the mechanic approved the sticker, or did he spend one technician shop doing 4 or 40 a day? There is no way to tell which sticker you are writing on.

Andy Libby is rotating tires on his car at Kimball’s Garage in South Portland this month. Gregory Wreck/Staff Photographer

Also, the mechanic whose signature is on the back of the sticker is the same person crawling under the vehicle with a flashlight, poking the brake lines, poking tie rods, and wiggling ball joints and wheel bearings. There is also no way to verify that At a more basic level, the state has absolutely no way of verifying that you’ve poked, stabbed, or wiggled.

Motorists file about 300 complaints about the system each year. Some have accused mechanics of overselling, pointing out safety issues and offering expensive repairs. Most complaints identify vehicles with stickers that do not do business on the street.

Maine’s system is built on trust.

In Auburn, the school system had to remove much of the bus fleet in February after officials learned that a licensed mechanic signed and handed stickers to an unlicensed technician. “Don’t lick it,” said Scott.

Unlike passenger cars, Maine school buses must be inspected twice a year. The State Police may never have learned about the Auburn Plan had it not been for the bus driver’s tipster.

collection of fees

Greg Morrow, mechanic at Paulines Tire & Auto on St. John Street in Portland, says a faster digital system to reduce paperwork burden and raise mandatory inspection fees will He said it would be of great help to Garage.

John Kimball has operated Kimball’s Garage in South Portland since the 1960s. Gregory Wreck/Staff Photographer

Morrow’s shop charges $125 per hour for labor, but can’t charge more than $18.50 for an inspection in Cumberland County, even if the technician takes 30 minutes. Cumberland County rates are also the highest in the state due to mandatory emissions testing.

“Am I against inspections? No way,” Morrow said. “Some people complain, but they weren’t under some of these cars.

Lawmakers have sought change, but the stumbling block has always been money. Some in Congress think inspections should be abolished, and others want exemptions for certain vehicles, including new ones.

In 2021, former Senator William Diamond, a Democrat for Wyndham, sponsored a bill to investigate whether inspections are still needed and, if so, whether the program needs a technology update. But the state legislature was reluctant to even fund the study, so Diamond asked the state police to do it. Scott put together a volunteer working group of lawmakers, safety inspectors, and store owners.

The findings were clear. Maine still requires safety inspections.

Scott estimates that the program saves about 50 lives each year. The numbers are based on his 2020 national survey by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, which looked at whether mandated testing improved safety and saved lives, drawing on decades of crash data and state based on an analysis of the rules of Determine if the inspection program makes a difference.

The group Scott assembled recommended increasing the testing fee from $25 to $30. This more closely matches the cost of a physical shop and helps fund the transition to digital systems.

Inspection stubs pile up on shelves at the Maine Police Department’s inspection office in Augusta. Gregory Wreck/Staff Photographer

But the senators again said no. The plan was submitted in the last session.

Raising the mandatory fees was unpopular on both sides of the aisle, especially during an election year, and the governor said he would veto the bill. If revived, the resistance may ease.

In a recent interview, Diamond, who was fired, said he thinks legislators will be on their way soon.

“I think the drive and approval that this has to be done is there. It’s a matter of timing,” Diamond said. “Like anything in politics, timing is everything. And the right people have to push the button.”

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