By Douglas Flint
If you live in Northern Virginia your vehicle will be subject to two types of inspection: the Virginia Safety Inspection and the Virginia Emissions Inspection. The two inspections have almost nothing to do with each other in their function and administration… except when they do.
Today I’m just going to talk about the safety test because almost all vehicles in Virginia must take this test yearly. The yellow 4″ x 3″ sticker prominently displayed at the bottom center of your windshield with large block letter indicates the month and then the year the inspection expires. Don’t have one? Better get one. The test was developed and administered by the Virginia state police — who license the shop as well as the inspector.
The inspector looks for problems with lights, horn, glass, mirrors, windshield wipers, brakes, suspension, and steering. The driver window must go up and down and front doors must open and close. The list of components inspected and potential failures is quite extensive. You can visit the Virginia State Police website for further details.
Here are some important things to know about the inspection process:
- The inspector must scrape the current sticker off the windshield as the very first step of the inspection. He does not have the option to see if it will pass first. Remember if you fail inspection, your car gets a rejection sticker. You then have 14 days to make the repairs and return for re-inspection for only $1. If you wait too long you must spring for the full $16 and a complete new inspection. Although police generally do not harass people with a rejection sticker, it is not a carte blanche to drive an unsafe vehicle. If finances or other concerns have you concerned about inspection, get a professional mechanic to look it over beforehand.
- The Virginia inspection is a snapshot in time and not a guarantee that the car will not have a problem in the near future. I can’t count how many times in 30 years I called a customer with a serious brake problem only to hear, “But it just passed inspection last month!”
- The inspection only checks one wheel in the front and one in the rear. Many brake problems happen on one wheel, leaving the other side looking okay. Hydraulic leaks often occur without warning. And a vehicle will pass inspection with 3/32 of brake pad material remaining but this will only last another month or two in Northern Virginia traffic. Most inspectors and shops try to alert customers when things like tires and brakes pass inspection but are close to the end of their lifecycle.
- A Burke VA inspector receives his license from the State Police, independent of the shop where he works. He is dependent on that license for his livelihood. The Virginia State Police can and do suspend inspector’s licenses quite often, usually for overlooking something that should have failed. Do not ask your inspector to look the other way. And if he’s a good inspector, the shop management will have little influence over his decisions as well.
- A shop’s license to perform inspections mandates that they keep the inspection bay available for inspection 8 hours per day. For that reason, inspections are done on a first-come first-served basis, no appointments allowed.
- In the event you feel you were treated unfairly, contact the Virginia State Police. Honestly, it’s not very difficult and there are no hard feelings. A customer who was failed because of a small crack in the driver’s field of vision did so recently. The police came the next morning, looked at the car with the customer and the inspector, and decided that the inspector was correct. But we would just have happily slapped a “pass” sticker on the car if the officer’s decisions had gone the other way.
- As of this writing, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles keeps no record of your vehicle’s safety inspection status (unlike your emissions). It’s up to you to make sure your vehicle is inspected.
Having worked some time in a locale that did not require yearly inspections, I can say unequivocally that Virginia has a good program. In that other shop just across the river in Maryland, it seemed that on almost every car, brakes were optional, lights intermittent, and tires were replaced only when you could see the air.
I’ve also seen cars in dangerous condition come in from states that had no inspection regimen. Good people would — not knowingly — let their families ride in unsafe vehicles. Sixteen dollars to have a professional check over your car? It’s the best bargain you’ll ever get.