News

Inspecting inspectors: What happens when Pa. vehicle inspection stations make mistakes or break the rules

Written by Ed Mahon, York Daily Record | Aug 16, 2015 5:00 AM
mechanic-1-600x340.jpg

Lonnie Markle, a mechanic with 83 Automotive Center, works to replace a tire rim in the Conewago Township garage on July 16. Last year, the station was one of several hundred that was sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for inspection violations. PennDOT suspended the station's ability to do emissions testing, but the department allowed it to continue doing other work. Markle was one of several local mechanics who was named in PennDOT documents for local stations that received suspensions or points instead of suspensions in 2014. Photo by Jason Plotkin, Daily Record / Sunday News)

(Undated) -- In February 2013, Nina Lemire checked out a red BMW at a used-car lot.

Lemire saw that the 1999 vehicle had fresh emissions and safety inspection stickers.

She went on a test drive. Everything looked fine.

She ended up buying the car for $4,300, plus fees and sales tax.

But there were problems with that red 1999 BMW -- problems that would later land a Conewago Township inspection station in trouble with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The station was one of hundreds sanctioned by PennDOT in 2014.

Lemire's problems began on the way to her Dauphin County home. The car's check engine light went on, she said.

"I just thought, 'Oh no,' " Lemire said.

To Lemire, those inspection stickers meant a state-certified station had said her car was safe for the road. But sometimes, stations make mistakes, miss things or skip required work. When they do, it can cost the car owner in repairs and the station in penalties and fines.

The inspection experience is one that Pennsylvania drivers know well. Most vehicles registered in Pennsylvania need to pass a safety test once a year. PennDOT says the goal is to prevent vehicle failure on the road and crashes that could result in injuries or death.

Vehicles in 25 out of 67 counties, including York, also must pass an emissions inspection.

Stations that get sanctioned for violations from PennDOT are not required to post that information publicly, and the department does not post it publicly, according to department spokesman Michael Moser.

But PennDOT provided a database of several hundred inspection station violations in response to a Right-to-Know request, plus additional documents requested by the York Daily Record/Sunday News.

Some of the violations in the database for 2014 occurred years earlier, but a backlog delayed the issuance of penalties, which in turn delayed the appeals and hearing process, according to Moser. He said PennDOT has since reduced the turnaround time.

A review of a dozen York County cases that resulted in suspensions, or points instead of a suspension, shows that nearly all of those local sanctions were for passing vehicles that should have failed, and it showed that stations often got penalties reduced after appealing.

PennDOT suspended 83 Automotive Center’s emissions inspection privileges, but the shop is still allowed to perform safety inspections and do other
PennDOT suspended 83 Automotive Center's emissions inspection privileges, but the shop is still allowed to perform safety inspections and do other work. Above, Shane Eaton, left, the shop's owner, works with mechanic Lonnie Markle to replace a tire rim in the Conewago Township garage on July 16. (Jason Plotkin -- Daily Record/Sunday News)
Lemire's case offers an example of how that process works, what's at stake for the business and customers, and what consumers can do if they think a mechanic made a mistake or intentionally misled them.

Lemire said it turned out that the red BMW had several problems that should have prevented it from passing an inspection. She said some lights were painted and too dark for the road, the oxygen sensors were malfunctioning, and the arm bars and ball joints were worn. Bill Moser, her uncle who has worked in the automotive business for decades, said the issues were serious enough that they could have caused an accident.

"There's a reason why the state checks that stuff, because of accidents," said Bill Moser, no relation to PennDOT's Michael Moser.

Lemire said she ended up spending about $6,000 on related repairs, renting a vehicle and legal costs. She said she was angry that she drove her two daughters in a vehicle that wasn't safe.

"I would never purchase a car that doesn't have a new inspection," said Lemire, 33. "So I trusted everything safety was OK."

As for the station that inspected the BMW, a PennDOT investigation ended with 83 Automotive Center getting a $2,500 fine and its emissions inspection privileges suspended for 15 months. That means you can still take your car there for other work, but the station can't do the annually required emissions inspection. That was one of the longest suspensions for a York County station in 2014.

PennDOT sanctioned the station for the safety inspection it performed on the red BMW, but the department allowed the station to continue doing safety inspections.

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Nina Lemire bought a red BMW in February 2013 from Prime Auto Sale in Cumberland County. The red BMW had fresh emissions and safety inspection stickers, but the car had problems, and her uncle ended up reporting the issue to state investigators. The investigation led to penalties for 83 Automotive Center, which passed the vehicle before Prime Auto Sale sold it to Lemire. Photo by Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News)

'Could be forever'

Stations typically rely on the emissions and safety inspections and subsequent repairs as a key source of income, according to Jeffrey Walter, executive director of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Pennsylvania. He said losing the ability to perform those inspections, even for a few months, can be devastating.

"Two months, for a small mom and pop organization, that could be forever for them," Walter said.

In York County, there were 19 separate violation incidents listed in the database. Another violation was not listed in the original database, but documents for that case were provided by PennDOT.

Stations can get a variety of penalties from PennDOT: warnings; suspensions; or points instead of suspensions, if management wasn't involved in the violation and a station owner can prove he or she provided proper supervision. If a station gets so many points, its safety or emissions inspection privileges get suspended.

Of those 20 incidents, eight resulted in warnings; eight resulted in suspensions; and four resulted in points instead of suspensions.

For some comparison, there are more than 400 emissions inspection stations in York County, and more than 500 safety inspection stations, PennDOT's Michael Moser said earlier this month.

Red BMW

Much of the work that PennDOT investigators do involves going through paperwork at stations and looking for anomalies, according to Michael Moser. That's how some stations get penalized.

But the state also responds to complaints.

After Lemire found out there were problems with the vehicle she purchased, she contacted her uncle, who then contacted state investigators. They took the BMW back to the station for a re-inspection in June 2013, and it failed.

The mechanic said a right front lower control arm bushing was replaced, and he thought that would take care of the movement on the front right tire, according to the station investigation report.

"Then he said he should have re-checked the lower control arm and ball joints but did not," the report says.

The mechanic said other things weren't a problem when he did the original inspection, and he said he did not notice cracks in the front brake hoses, according to the report. A supervisor who was interviewed said he would watch over the mechanic more carefully in the future.

The Lemire complaint also prompted an emissions investigation into the station, which resulted in penalties.

State investigators said the red BMW improperly passed an emissions test, and that the work was done by an uncertified inspector, owner Shane Eaton.

During a June 2014 hearing, when asked if he had taken part in other emissions inspections, Eaton said if other mechanics were busy, he would use mechanic Lonnie C. Markle's license to run the test, according to a hearing examiner's summary. Eaton was told that only a certified emissions inspector can perform emissions inspections, "and he is to have nothing to do with emission inspections. "

The station was penalized both for its safety and emissions work. PennDOT said Markle conducted a faulty safety inspection on the BMW, and the station ended up accepting seven points instead of a 14-month total safety inspection suspension, according to May and June 2014 letters. For the emissions, it received a 15-month suspension and a $2,500 fine, according to an August 2014 letter.

mechanic-2-600x340.jpg

PennDOT suspended 83 Automotive Center's emissions inspection privileges, but the shop is still allowed to perform safety inspections and do other work. Above, Shane Eaton, left, the shop's owner, works with mechanic Lonnie Markle to replace a tire rim in the Conewago Township garage on July 16. Photo by Jason Plotkin, Daily Record / Sunday News

What happened to the station

On a Thursday in July, Markle was working on replacing tire rims as "More Than a Feeling" played at 83 Automotive Center. Markle said he's been more thorough with safety inspections since the state investigation at the shop.

"You inspect so many cars, you know what I'm saying? Things do slip by you," Markle said. "And a few things slipped by that I didn't really take notice to."

Markle said the problems weren't major but needed to be addressed.

Eaton said he's been a mechanic his whole life, and he opened his own shop near Interstate 83 several years ago. He has since moved to the 4600 block of Susquehanna Trail.

Eaton said the shop passed the vehicle's emissions after a computerized diagnostic system gave a pass result. Eaton called that a flaw in the PennDOT system, which the department disputes.

Spokesman Michael Moser said inspectors have the option of passing a vehicle that's not communicating with equipment, but that is meant to account for anomalies. Moser said stations have to document work to show legitimate efforts were made.

As for the penalty of doing work without an emissions license, Eaton said he has a problem with PennDOT telling him that he can't help with emissions inspections. He said as the owner, he's liable for what happens at the station.

"If I'm responsible for everything that goes through that machine, I'm responsible for every sticker in the building, how is it that I cannot get involved with the machine, with checking to see what the problem is?" Eaton said.

Eaton said he didn't have money to pay an attorney to fight the emissions inspection penalties.

But the penalties have affected his business. Most customers want emissions and safety inspections done at the same time, Eaton said. He said that since being suspended, if a customer wants an emissions test, his shop tells them that it can do the safety inspection, but the customer has to take it to another shop for the emissions test first.

"Or we'll run 'em down for 'em if they don't have the time to do it," Eaton said.

Eaton said in July that he hasn't decided whether to apply for an emissions inspection certification once the suspension ends. Why wasn't he sure?

"Just the headaches," Eaton said.

What happened to Lemire

In July 2013, Lemire sued the dealership that sold her the car, Prime Auto Sale -- which is also referred to as Cool Transport & Towing, LLC in legal paperwork. Lemire said that even though she bought the car "as is," the dealership knew or should have known that the inspection stickers displayed were obtained improperly.

In an interview, Lemire said she paid for other repairs that she isn't seeking reimbursement for.

In August 2013, Lemire won in magisterial district court and was awarded about $2,427, plus $175 in filing fees.

The dealership appealed to the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas.

Hoda Abdalla, of Prime Auto Sale, said in a court filing that the dealership does not perform any mechanical or inspection work on any of the vehicles it re-sells and has no reasonable way to verify the results of mechanical and emissions inspections except to rely on state-sanctioned documentation.

In another legal filing, an attorney for Prime Auto Sale, Philip L. Zulli, said when Lemire checked out the vehicle, she was accompanied by someone who held himself out as an auto mechanic. Lemire disputed that description.

In May 2015, a Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas judge ruled in favor of Prime Auto.

Earlier this year, Lemire sold the red BMW. She watches her nieces now, so it was too small and not practical anymore.

When she bought a 2004 Volvo SUV from a different dealer, she insisted on bringing it to her mechanic before buying it.

"If they didn't let me take it to my mechanic and put it on a lift, I wasn't buying it," she said. "I don't care what the inspection sticker says."

Contact Ed Mahon at 717-771-2089.


What an inspector looks for in an inspection

What you can do

Want to know if PennDOT has sanctioned your station in recent years?

You can submit a Right-to-Know request to PennDOT by emailing PENNDOT-RightToKnow@pa.gov.

We recommend including the name and address for the station you want any sanction information about; time period you want information on; and whether you want sanction information for emissions inspections, safety inspections or both.

You can check out the PennDOT website for a Right-to-Know form and other info.

Want to report a complaint about a station?

You can email painspections@state.pa.us for safety inspection complaints, or you can call 1-800-265-0921 for either type of complaint.

Want more info?

For safety inspections, PennDOT has a frequently asked questions section of its website for motorists at www.dmv.state.pa.us/inspections/safety_motorist_faq.shtml.

For emissions related info, you can visit www.drivecleanpa.state.pa.us.

Requirements vary by state

AAA's Digest of Motor Laws says some states do not have a periodic safety inspection requirement and instead rely on officers to stop vehicles if they believe they are unsafe to operate. Other states tie vehicle inspection to changes of ownership.

Who performs inspections also varies.

West Virginia, for instance, relies on private shops certified by the state to do annual safety inspections. In Delaware, inspections are done at four Division Of Motor Vehicles facilities.

New Jersey has both state-operated inspection stations and private inspection facilities.

Emissions inspection rules also vary.

lemire-2-600x340.jpg

Nina Lemire said that following improper safety and emissions inspections on a car she bought, she spent about $6,000 on related repairs, to rent a vehicle, and legal costs. She sued the dealership that sold her the used car, won in magisterial district court, but lost on an appeal. Photo by Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News)


This article comes to us through a partnership between the York Daily Record and WITF. 

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Comments: 1

  • Engine img 2015-09-24 20:11

    The whole inspection thing is a state sponsored scam and costs us $$$ every year.
    Tell me why a brand new car needs an inspection? Or even a two year old car? Or a car with less than 20k miles? Why? So stinking shops can make money.
    Light bulb is out, or wipers need replaced....$20 or we fail you. Brakes are bad, $200 or we fail you. What choice do we have? Most expensive cars in the World
    Yes, it happens every day. It's complete and utter sate sponsored BS and blackmail by these shops.
    It's a scam from start to finish. Stupid nanny state of PA...your car has to be in extra tip top safe shape, but you can ride a motorcycle with no helmet...what a contradiction.

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