Here in Pennsylvania, we have this annual thing we have to do with our vehicles called “state inspection.” It’s the single largest money-making racket since that Ticketmaster fee where you have to pay extra to print your tickets at home.
Before I explain why this is, first let me explain what the state inspection program involves. In states that have inspection programs, which is about half of them, you have to get your car “inspected” every year for “safety violations” by some “random person.” Despite the “state inspection” moniker, this person is not connected to the state in any way. Instead, he owns Big Jim’s Bail Bonds and Car Repairs, and boy could he use some cash.
So here’s what happens. My state inspection decal expires in September, which means I have to go to Big Jim’s (or some other equally dubious state inspection location) every September in order to renew it.
And so, being a normal, rational human being, I wait until approximately September 29 at 5 p.m. in order to make an appointment to do this.
So I call Big Jim, and he tells me to come on down in my aging Range Rover, which looks pretty rough on the outside but is in excellent mechanical shape because—as we all know—CarMax foots the bill for virtually everything that happens to it. So I drop off the car with Big Jim, and I take an Uber home. Last time it was a Honda Insight, and the guy driving it was from North Dakota. We discussed the cold, the remoteness, and of course bison.
So then a few hours later, Big Jim calls and he tells me that something on the car is worn, or fraying, or broken, or damaged, and “in order to pass safety inspection, you’re gonna have to fix it.”
This happens every single year, without fail. It doesn’t matter if the car just came back from the dealer, who gave it a clean bill of health. Hell, I could’ve just completed a frame-off restoration where every single part was replaced with a new one, and Big Jim would still call and tell me the Clock Spring Actuator was broken, and “in order to pass safety inspection, you’re gonna have to fix it.” And so I give Big Jim $275 to replace the Goldberg Hose, or the Taillight Respirator, or the Brake Shoes and Socks, and I’m on my way. Every single year.
Now, this is annoying to me, but it’s fine, because I’ve come to realize that this is how life goes when you’re living in Pennsylvania, just like I realized that billboards with fetuses on them was how life goes back when I was living in Georgia.
But what if you’re poor? What if you need your Nissan Versa Hatchback to transport your children to school, and you can’t afford to fork over $275 to Big Jim in order to pay for the Windshield Wiper Estuary?
This is one major reason state inspection sucks. Here’s another: because you can easily get out of it if you have the right connections.
I’m new to Pennsylvania, which means I have absolutely no connections aside from the readers who have e-mailed me to get dinner, one of whom owns a 2003 Kia Spectra that he purchased for one dollar. But people who have lived here a long time have a lot of connections. And I cannot tell you how many readers I’ve met who told me that they have “a guy” who does their inspection, which is always said with a wink and a smile.
Here’s what this means: they arrive to the inspection place in a Mazda Miata that’s had the seatbelts totally removed in a weight saving exercise, and they slip “a guy” $100 to pass it, and he passes it, end of story. Whereas me and the poor family with the Versa Hatchback are stuck throwing Big Jim $275 in order to get our windshield re-glued. (“Gotta get it re-glued every few years,” says Big Jim. “Not many people know that.”)
Now, proponents of the state inspection system will swear up and down that while there may be a few issues here or there, overall it’s a good program because it keeps crappy cars off the road. Well, here’s my response: for one thing, this isn’t true. Drive into rough areas and you’ll still see a Pontiac Grand Prix with two temporary tires, and mismatched panels, and duct tape where the roof should be—and a fresh inspection sticker.
And number two: I used to live in Georgia, which had no state safety inspection, and you know what I discovered? Despite the fact that people can get away with registering whatever they want without any government oversight, they generally don’t.
They still have the same proportion of good cars, and the same proportion of mediocre cars, and the same proportion of crappy cars. They just have more billboards with fetuses on them.