Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Passing Muster

We may call this the United States, but one thing these states are not united about is vehicle inspection.

Here in suburban Atlanta, a yearly emission inspection is all we need in order to be able to drive a car, truck, SUV, crossover, or minivan.  The emission inspection is due before one's birthday, which makes it easy to remember.  Once a year, we take each vehicle to any of about a thousand tiny emission checking stations, where we pay up to $25 (it's almost always $25, except for my friend Jean's $20 location, which she claims is "in the 'hood") for our inspections.

The minimal inspections that we have here are fairly methodical and predictable.  The inspector connects the emission check computer to the vehicle's on-board computer to get a direct reading.  For older vehicles, a "sniffer" device is inserted into the car's exhaust and the tires are run on a roller mechanism to achieve enough RPM's for the emission computer to register the emission levels.  An example of the latter can be seen in the picture above.  This is all very mystical, and when it is finished, the inspector hands you a sheet of paper indicating whether your car passed, and that's it.  The brakes could be failing, or you might not even have any working headlights, but if the emission check goes OK, you're good to go.

The other day, I was thinking back fondly on the vehicle inspections of my youth.  In the 1960's, Memphis required vehicle inspections several times a year.  Going to the inspection station was always something of an adventure, because there was no certainty, even with all visible parts functioning, that your car would pass.   The inspection station itself was a cavernous old building which reminded me of a retrofitted airplane hangar.  There were half a dozen or so lanes in which cars lined up, and often the place was packed, especially as the inspection deadlines drew near.  I remember heading out sometimes after dinner and making a night of it in Midtown at the inspection station...ah, the simplicity of youth.

The Memphis inspection was designed to ensure that a car was road worthy: the headlights were checked to make sure they were aimed properly, the steering was checked, the windshield wipers were inspected for signs of wear, and all the vehicle parking, brake and turn signal lights were checked as well.  My favorite part of the inspection was the brake meter, which was an adventure unto itself.  The idea was to accelerate for a short distance, then brake as hard as you could to see how well the brakes stopped the car.  The brake testing machine consisted of sensor plates tied to fluid-filled meters that shot up a wickedly red viscous liquid, and the degree to which the fluid would rise would depend on how effectively your car braked.  My dad said that when he was younger, he and his friends would try to hit the brakes hard enough to max out the fluid.  He said that some of it even escaped on occasion, although I'm pretty sure he was making that part up.

Once you passed the inspection, assuming that you indeed passed, the inspectors would apply a new inspection sticker to the lower right side of the vehicle window.  This task had to be performed with a certain orderliness.  First, the old sticker would have to be scraped off with a razor blade, then the window cleaned of any remaining adhesive (lazier station employees would sometimes skip this part), then a new sticker would be applied.  Once the new sticker was in place, you would feel totally legitimate driving said vehicle.  Nothing could stop you.

It's been many years since I've lived in Memphis, and I see from rambling about online that there is a new inspection station (see photo at right).  Clearly, this new station looks to be a thing of beauty.  But I wonder if the brake meter is still there, and if the guy walks out to tell you how out of line your headlights are.  I'm thinking that the whole thing is almost certainly far more automated these days, but at any rate, it is a nice looking building.

Now, all this inspection business may have seemed back in the 60's and 70's to be a bit extreme, but consider the alternative nature of inspections in Chicago during that same period.  When I lived in Chicago, you could basically drive anything from a Soap Box Derby car to a saltine cracker box, as long as it had four wheels.  I remember these antigoglin cars rolling down the road, sitting at an angle, and wondering how in the world they passed inspection.  In Chicago, it was all about buying the "city sticker", which essentially gave you license to drive your vehicle through the ice and snow, regardless of the percentage of Bondo and duct tape.  But on one occasion, even I violated the Chicago rules.  Let me explain.

It was a leisurely Sunday afternoon in 1980, and my wife and I were driving our 1970 two-tone Chevy Nova north on Sheridan Road, through the tony North Shore community of Kenilworth, on a cold winter's day.  (All the winter days in Chicago are cold, so that is a rhetorical statement if I've ever heard one.)  The Nova had belonged to my dad in Memphis, and he'd always taken good care of it there, but I recently had inherited it and moved it to Chicago.  Several weeks prior to the said Kenilworth sojourn, I had been in a minor collision where I'd been hit from behind, but I had since affixed the license plate to the its bracket on the rear fuel door with a piece of string, so it wasn't going anywhere.

Anyway, there we were, motoring along through the slushy roads at about 25 miles per hour.  I looked in the rear view mirror and spotted a police cruiser following me, lights flashing to beat the band.  I double-checked the speedometer to make sure I hadn't been speeding, but when the officer approached the car, he simply said, "Sir, I'd like to inform you that your license plate is not properly affixed to your vehicle.  You need to get it fixed as soon as you can."  And that was it...no ticket, just a gentle reminder that I had strayed over the line of Illinois vehicle propriety.  Of course, it was true that the slush had discolored the plate slightly.

Having been moved to Chicago, the Nova had basically taken on a new life, where inspection became a relative term.  I sold it to a fellow some years later for $400, and he tried to sell me cocaine at the same time.  I refused, of course, thinking that none of this would have happened had I kept the car safely in Memphis, where every few months, it could visit the inspection station to get its shiny new sticker and a little pat on the back for having all its lights in order.

So, happy motoring, and good luck with your next inspection, in whatever form it takes.  I have confidence that your car will pass...I think.