How To Pass Safety Inspection

And why you should check these things anyway.

byBenjamin Preston|
Cars 101 photo

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Only 17 U.S. states require annual vehicle safety inspections, as opposed to 31 states that require periodic emissions inspections. In a country so obsessed with motor vehicle fatalities, the fact that we willingly forego more comprehensive driver education and pervasive safety equipment checks is confounding. But like the outcome of our recent presidential election, that's the way things are. Regardless of who's driving—you, or the computer—your machine should be in decent shape if you want to avoid accidents.

If you live in one of the states that does require safety inspections, you can prepare beforehand so that you don't have to waste time on a return trip to the inspection station. For those of you who live in those gray voids where your right to ply public roads in a rickety heap of a car regardless of the safety and well-being of your fellow motorists, checking out basic safety equipment annually on your own remains a capital idea.

At minimum, here's what to look for:

Lights: Do your headlights, tail lights, directional signals, and hazard flashers work? Being visible is one of the more important aspects of driving on public roads.

Brakes: You'll have to pull a couple of wheels for this one. Ideally, you'll check all four wheels, making sure there is adequate brake lining left on the pads or shoes (there are usually wear indicators to show when they've been worn too low) and check the rotors or drums for excessive wear, cracks and warpage. When you depress the brake pedal, it should feel firm, but not hard. It shouldn't sink gradually to the floor. Check the brake master cylinder and individual brakes for leaks. Leaks are bad, as the hydraulic pressure necessary to operate the brakes won't be strong enough if they're present. The parking brake should be properly adjusted and able to hold the vehicle's weight on an incline.

Steering: Check the power steering system for leaks and make sure the belt that runs the power steering pump (if it has one) is in good condition. With the front end of the car jacked up off the ground, grab each front wheel at the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions and push it back and forth alternately on each side. You're feeling for play in the tie rod ends, which keep the car pointed in the direction the driver wants it to go. If you hear clunking, you'll know it's time to replace some parts.

Suspension: While you still have the front end of the car off the ground, grab the wheel at the 12 o'clock and 6 o'clock positions and press back and forth forcefully. There should be no play. If there is, ball joints or suspension bushings, which affect the car's handling and stability, are the likely culprits and will need to be replaced. With all four wheels on the ground, press down sharply on each corner of the vehicle. It should bounce once, but that's about it. If it oscillates up and down a few times, you probably need new shock absorbers.

 Fuel System: Do you smell gasoline? If so, better check all those fuel lines. Rubber hoses can develop cracks over time, and in some parts of the country, steel lines rust through. The last thing you need is a fuel leak, which can quickly transform your morning commute from a period of quiet reflection into a skin-searing inferno.

 Tires and Wheels: The tires should have adequate tread (the rule of thumb is if you put a penny in the tread and can see the top of Lincoln's head, you need new tires) and you should not be able to see any steel belting. Make sure there's no dry rotting or other cracks, which can cause blow-outs. Check the wheels for excessive corrosion, and replace wheels that have been damaged by rough road conditions.

Horn: If your horn doesn't work, fix or replace it. Even if you screw an old doorbell button next to the steering wheel and use an old "La Cucaracha" air horn, you have to have some way of alerting other drivers about potential trouble. I've driven a car with no horn, and it's a lot like running through a crowd of iPhone-absorbed dump truck drivers without being able to scream in terror (as a matter of fact, that's exactly what it's like).

Windshield/Doors/Windows: The windshield should be free of cracks and pitting so that you can see out of it. All of the windows should work, but especially the driver's side window. They won't look for this in a safety inspection, but if you have a car with electric windows, you should keep a small hammer/seatbelt cutter near the driver's seat so that you can escape from the vehicle if its electrical system fails. You should be able to open doors with inside and outside handles, and they should stay closed while the vehicle is underway.

Windshield Wipers/Defroster: The windshield wipers should work, as should the defroster. If you've ever driven in a car without these things on a rainy day, you'll know why. You can't see a thing.

Exhaust System: Make sure there aren't any leaks. That pea-sized hole near your manifold might sound cool (for a couple of days, anyway), but it can also cause poisonous carbon monoxide to leak into the passenger compartment. Once you've ingested enough of this stuff, you may live for a short time, but the carbon monoxide molecules will have destroyed the capacity of your lungs to process oxygen and you will soon die with a red face.

Seats/Seatbelts/Airbags: The seats should all be intact, and solidly anchored to the floor. Make sure the seatbelts aren't frayed or otherwise damaged. The airbag system lights (SRS) should not stay on after startup, and you should check airbag locations for any damage.

Floorpan/body: Make sure there are no holes in the floor where exhaust gasses might enter the vehicle.

Emissions System: Inspectors will want to see that this equipment is all in place. States with emissions testing programs will check its functionality as well.

Engine Compartment/Undercar: Make sure there are no terrible oil leaks coming from the engine, transmission or differential. Transmission leaks in particular can cause fires if they're leaking on hot exhaust system components.

All of these are very basic guidelines based on the safety inspection standards in my home state of Virginia. To prepare for inspection in your state, check out the DMV website for more detail. Also, if you ask (and sometimes if you don't), most mechanics will do a safety equipment check during regular maintenance and other repairs.