March 12, 2010

Bill seeks biennial checks

BETH QUIMBY

— By

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Photo by David Hench... Tuesday, February 10, 2009...Chris Walsh, a mechanic at the AAA Car Care Center on Marginal Way in Portland, conducts a car inspection for a customer on Tuesday morning, February 10, 2009.

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Staff Writer

For many motorists, vehicle inspections are a yearly hassle: A lot of mechanics require an appointment, and then there is the half-hour wait, spent wondering whether the visit will result in a big repair bill.

Under a proposal before the Maine Legislature, that chore would come around less often. Maine lawmakers are considering a bill that would push annual motor vehicle inspections to once every two years.

Proponents say technological innovations have made annual inspections unnecessary for today's vehicles and that biennial inspections would be more convenient. Opponents say annual inspections are important in states where harsh winters take a toll on vehicles, and that lengthening the period between inspections will result in more crashes.

''People would vote for it, but the state troopers don't,'' said Rep. Walter Wheeler, D-Kittery, the bill's chief sponsor.

At 83, Wheeler remembers when inspections were required only every five years, and the inspection fee was 25 cents.

His proposal would not save motorists any money, though, because Wheeler wants to double the existing inspection fees, which are $18.50 for Cumberland County residents, who are required to have an emissions test, and $12.50 for everyone else.

It could save motorists from paying some fines, though. In 2007, 16,654 people paid $133 each, or more than $2.2 million collectively, for failing to have their vehicles inspected after the 30-day grace period in Maine.

Not all New England states have annual inspections. Connecticut requires a biennial $20 emissions test for all vehicles and a safety inspection for a vehicle 10 years or older that is being registered in the state for the first time. Rhode Island requires biennial safety and emissions tests at a cost of $39.

Vermont and New Hampshire lawmakers are looking at proposals this year to make their current annual inspections biennial. Neither state regulates inspection fees, which range from $40 to $50 in New Hampshire, said Jim Van Dongen, spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety.

In Maine, public safety officials and many inspection stations oppose any change. Mark Duval, of Duval's Service Center in South Portland, said inspections save lives and prevent crashes. He noted that potholes, frost heaves and road salt do a lot of damage to vehicles.

''Corrosion from road salt creates huge problems for brake lines,'' he said.

An inspection also assures the driver that the vehicle is mechanically safe, Duval said.

He said his shop actually loses money on inspections, which take at least 30 minutes and are done by a licensed technician whose labor rate is normally $89 an hour.

Maine State Police also are against the move. Lt. Christopher Grotton, who heads the motor vehicle inspection unit, claimed that the rate of accidents caused by motor vehicle defects is lower in Maine because of annual inspections.

Grotton said the state also stands to lose the roughly $3 million it makes each year on inspection stickers. The state pays 7 cents apiece for the roughly 1.5 million stickers issued each year and sells them to inspection stations for $2.50 each.

''We are one of the few government programs that make a little money,'' Grotton said.

The group AAA, which provides automotive services, insurance and advocacy for 50 million members and is headquartered in Heathrow, Fla., supports annual inspections performed by trained technicians and conducted with safeguards that protect the consumer and ensure a thorough inspection.

Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA Northern New England, said his group recognizes that there are pros and cons to annual inspections. He encouraged members and others to voice their opinions through AAA's online legislative action center, available at www.aaa.com.

Proponents of the legislation say annual inspections are unnecessary and unfair. Rep. Bryan Kaenrath, D-South Portland, a co-sponsor who filed a similar measure last year, noted that only 15 or 16 states have a vehicle inspection program. Kaenrath said other northern rural states, such as North Dakota and Idaho, do not require inspections.

He said he was flooded with public support last year for biennial inspections. That proposal failed over concerns that the state could lose federal funding if the emissions test in Cumberland County was changed to every other year.

Kaenrath questions how valid those concerns were, considering that Connecticut and Rhode Island only require emissions tests every other year. Proponents hope new information on the emissions question will allow this year's proposal to succeed.

''Every year is overkill when you look at what other states are doing,'' Kaenrath said.

Motorists appear to be divided on the issue. Barbara Smith of Cape Elizabeth said annual inspections reassure her. ''You really need to know that your car is in top condition,'' she said.

Jennie Franceschi of Westbrook said she would welcome a biennial system. ''I know I forget to have my car inspected,'' she said.

Eric Dudley of Gorham said he was on the fence. ''It's a hassle one way or the other,'' he said.

The Legislature's Transportation Committee is scheduled to discuss the measure, which does not apply to commercial vehicles, at 1 p.m. Thursday in Room 126 of the State House in Augusta. A Maine Department of Environmental Protection official is expected to weigh in on the issue of federal funding at the meeting.

The committee could vote Thursday afternoon on whether to recommend passage.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

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