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Auto Inspection: The Comprehensive Guide To Auto Inspections in 2021

Last updated: August 27, 2021
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vector car on lift getting an auto inspection by a mechanic

We’re all looking to make our cars last as long as possible.

But… keeping your car healthy and running well takes hard work.

That means preventative maintenance and checking things out once in a while. Many also states require regular vehicle safety inspections.

What gets checked out differs from state to state, and there are a few places in the United States that require no inspections.

However, general rules of thumb govern what inspections involve, and we’ll look at some of them below.


Related:


What Is an Auto Inspection?

At its most basic, inspection is a service where a professional checks out systems on your car to make sure they’re working as they should.

Depending on your state, you may need to have other aspects of your vehicle inspected. You may be getting it inspected for your peace of mind before you purchase it.

Inspectors check safety systems, basic functions of the car, and they may do emissions tests.

Inspections, though required by law, are something like the annual physical you’re supposed to get from your doctor. Yeah, I don’t, either, but still.

Think about it like this: if you haven’t had a haircut in six months, you don’t realize how ridiculously shaggy you look until you see a picture of yourself from five months ago.

You’ve gotten used to the shagginess. When you see that old picture, you remember what you think you look like and go get a haircut.

There may be some little things about your car that slowly start to wear down, and you don’t realize it because it’s happening gradually.

A vehicle’s inspection report can be that five-month-old photo that reminds you of what needs attention.

Types of Auto Inspections

If you live in California, part of your auto inspection is a smog test— a check to see if your vehicle is living up to the state standards for air quality.

In Oklahoma, you don’t have to have anything inspected. However, most other states have varying degrees of thoroughness to their inspections.

three different types of auto inspections as illustrated by vector graphics

1. State Inspection

Perhaps the most common inspection, the state inspection is a mandated safety check of vehicles.

Depending on the state you live in and its inspection statutes, you will need your car inspected for several things, and the inspector will be up on your state’s requirements.

Some states only require certain vehicles to be inspected. In Illinois, only so-called second division automobiles–cars and trucks designed for freight or hauling more than just a few passengers– need an inspection.

Any safety inspection will involve checking that the safety systems in the car are working.

This ensures that the car is safe to drive on the road and not a danger to its driver, passengers, or other cars.

A University of Michigan study back in 1985 showed that inspection programs didn’t necessarily translate into long-term savings in vehicle maintenance and longevity, but it could not disprove the safety of periodically examining your car for things that might go wrong with it.

2. Emissions Inspection

When I first started driving in Texas, where I grew up, inspection involved my mechanic honking the horn, checking the brake lights, and giving me my new inspection sticker.

Something tells me those weren’t the most comprehensive examinations my pickup ever had.

Emissions inspections are much more thorough now. California requires a smog test, and Illinois checks diesel emissions from freight vehicles.

It’s difficult to make a blanket statement about emissions testing requirements nationwide, but in general, inspectors will run on-board diagnostic tests, check for exhaust system leaks, inspect the catalytic converter, and may measure the pollutants coming from your tailpipe.

Again, your mechanic or local inspector will know what your state requires. If he doesn’t, find someone else.

3. Car Inspection

A mechanic does another type of inspection before you purchase a car. A dealership will usually provide an inspection report.

Some states require the dealership to provide inspection of new vehicles before delivery.

If you’re buying a used car from a private citizen, you want to have someone check it out for you. You may know how to kick tires and drive the thing around the block, but that won’t tell you a whole lot.

Your trusted mechanic can tell you if the frame is bent or if there’s a tiny oil leak or anything else you might not have caught because you’re not a mechanic.

What Does a Vehicle Inspection Look For?

Generally, inspection services are safety checks. Is this vehicle safe to drive on the road?

To assess that, states often require a 19-point vehicle inspection to judge a vehicle safe and roadworthy.

Lights

You know if your headlights are out and how dangerous that can be. But you may not know one brake light is out or that your reverse lights don’t come on.

Every light on the outside of your car serves a safety purpose, so they need checking.

  • Headlights
  • Taillights (including license plate lights)
  • Brake lights
  • Turn signals (front and back)

Vehicle Control

Safely piloting and stopping your vehicle are the two most important things you have to be able to do, so a 19-point inspection assesses the condition of brakes and the like with a short test drive, in which he’ll check:

  • Foot brakes
  • Emergency brake
  • Steering system

Interior Systems

Climate control may not be critical to operating a vehicle, but damage to those systems can cause problems, so a check of the air conditioner is warranted, as is the speedometer.

High speeds arestatistically unsafe. Drivers with broken speedometers, well, you get it.

  • Heat and air conditioning
  • Front seat adjustment system
  • Speedometer
  • Seatbelts (different requirements depending on the model year)
  • Door handles and locks

Visibility (Yours and Other Drivers’)

A minor crack in your windshield may not pose a danger. However, a giant spider web of crazed lines across your field of vision could cause a problem.

Inspectors want to see that a driver can see through the windshield, but you know when yours needs replacing.

The same goes for the other windows in your car, and no inspection is complete without a honk of the horn because you don’t need it often, but when you do, you really do.

  • Windshield and windshield wipers
  • Front, rear, and side windows
  • All rearview mirrors
  • Horn

And Finally

If you’ve got a ding in your door, no one cares. But if your bumper perpetually rubs your front tire, that’s a safety issue.

Inspection for damage is not hard to do, and you should be able to tell if you’re going to pass that part of the inspection.

They’ll also check your tire treads for wear, and while most people know about the “penny test,” ABC News reported several years ago that the quarter test is better for assessing your tread.

  • Body condition/damage
  • Muffler and exhaust system
  • Condition of tires, including tread depth

Where Do I Get an Inspection?

For the most part, your reputable auto mechanics perform annual safety inspections.

Inspections happen in repair shops, as well as at some dealerships and their service centers.

If you don’t have a regular mechanic, find your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles site here, and from there, you can find a list of inspection stations near you.

Inspection FAQs

What do I need for my inspection?

The details will vary from state to state, but generally, you’ll need proof of ownership (your registration, for instance), liability insurance coverage, and a photo ID.

How often do I need to have an inspection?

This is another question your mechanic can answer. Most states require at least annual inspections, although New Jersey requires one every two years. Laws vary.

What if my vehicle fails inspection?

In most states where inspection is required, you can’t get a registration renewal or transfer ownership of the car.

An expired inspection sticker can also get you a ticket. If your car fails, the inspector will tell you what the problems were and– more than likely– offer to repair them.

There is no limit to how many times your vehicle can try to pass inspection, and there is no waiting period between a failed inspection and another attempt as there is with driver license tests in some states.

Are inspections just another way for the state to make money?

Technically, most states that require official inspection do funnel the money generated from inspection fees to roads and infrastructure maintenance and the like, and sometimes into other government projects.

However, even if your state didn’t use the money to keep the roads in good repair, you would still benefit from having your car’s safety and roadworthiness assessed by a professional from time to time.

Wrapping Up

Vehicle inspections are often state requirements, but they make good sense even if they are optional.

Taking the time to have a pro make sure everything is working right is just logical.

Our cars have safety features to protect other drivers and us, and our engines have emissions controls to help us be as kind to our environment as possible.

Inspections are vital to ensuring all systems are go.

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