New Massachusetts Car Inspection System Is Tough But Honest

Cameras that are now installed in the Inspection bays leave little room for leniency. We put the system to the test.

Justin Hughes

Massachusetts implemented a new vehicle inspection system last October that had enthusiasts scared that the sky was falling. A strict computerized system with cameras in the inspection bays would ensure inspectors had no room to be lenient. The system got off to a rocky start, with a mere fraction of the state's inspection stations fully operational on October 1. As of January there were no cameras at the station where my wife got her Ford Flex inspected. My Subaru WRX was due in March, so it came time to see if my lightly modified car could pass the new system.

I did a little work on my WRX to prepare it for inspection. I had installed a vinyl windshield banner over the winter to help block the sun, which is always low in the sky and in my eyes. It wasn't a professional installation, so I removed it to make sure I didn't fail because some part of it was a tiny bit too low on the windshield. I'd been testing some small LED bulbs for exterior lighting, but they had started to flicker, so I put the original incandescent bulbs back in. I did not, however, replace my LED turn signals or fog light bulbs. I also took a chance and left the Stage 1 tune from my Cobb Accessport installed. After all, the "Check Engine" light wasn't on, so I should still pass emissions.

In this condition, I went to my usual inspection station. This time, the cameras were fully operational. Once the inspector entered my information into the computer, we were streaming live video to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The inspector took still images of the front and back of the car showing the license plates correctly attached, as well as the vehicle identification number and the odometer. He tested all of the lights. My turn signals, though LED, still flash at the normal speed thanks to an aftermarket relay, so that wasn't a problem. Strangely, my fog lights weren't checked at all.

Then came one test I'd never had before, window tint. My car came with it, and it had never been an issue or even tested before. But now, the inspector rolled down a window part way and measured it with a special tool. It registered 38 percent. The legal limit is 35 percent, so it passed. I was relieved and thankful that the original owner of the car was as diligent as he was in keeping the tint lighter than legal limits.

The inspector jacked up each of the front wheels and checked for excess play in the suspension. There was none. Then he plugged the inspection computer into my car's OBD2 diagnostic port. It pulled the data it wanted. Then it printed out a full inspection report and a sticker valid for one more year. I passed.

Justin Hughes

The inspection computer knows if you recently cleared any trouble codes to try and fool it into passing.

The report shows a great deal of information, much of which was not recorded by the previous system. For example, it shows that I had driven 2,839 miles since the last time the system was cleared of diagnostic codes and that the car had warmed up 65 times since then. This must have been the time elapsed since I replaced my battery a few months ago.

Every safety check must be done on camera. The inspector had me test the brake and reverse lights for him before entering the bay, but he had to do these tests a second time himself to look good for the camera and prove that he checked them. When he handed me my registration he had to stop me from putting it back in the car because it was in the middle of its emission scan at the time. I was not allowed to be in the car for any reason, lest I trick the system somehow.

Overall the inspection was far more strict than it has ever been before. But it should be noted that no laws have changed regarding the requirements for vehicle inspection. The only change is that the new system requires inspectors to follow the process to the letter of the law rather than just the spirit. Last year the same inspector probably just eyeballed my window tint and decided it was fine. This time he was required to measure it. He will be next year as well, just in case I change it.

But it wasn't unfair, either. The minor modifications I rolled into the inspection bay with passed on the first try. My exhaust is entirely stock so it had no problem passing a visual and auditory inspection, but the inspector never looked under the hood. An aftermarket air intake would pass, just as long as it didn't trigger any diagnostic trouble codes. The casual enthusiast with minor modifications to their car should have no problem passing, so long as they comply with the law.

My WRX passed, but next month I face an even more difficult test: the VW Jetta Ute. Aside from a few safety items I know I need to fix, there's the question of whether it will pass inspection with an entirely new back half of the car. The front looks the same, but the back looks like a pickup truck, not a Jetta. I even got pulled over for this once and was let go after I explained the kit. Unlike my WRX, the Jetta now has a custom exhaust, though one that is no louder than the original. We will have to see what hassles, if any, it will take to keep the Ute on the road legally.

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