Passing state-mandated auto inspections can depend more on which garage a driver chooses than the vehicle's actual condition - even with defects as obvious as bald tires, broken headlights and missing parts.
A review of three years of inspections data suggests the program is undermined by stations doing a volume business, passing unsafe cars indifferently, and by crooked garages that either take bribes or rip off customers with unneeded repairs, an investigation by The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer found.
Nationally, 14 states have dropped safety inspections since the 1970s, and research found little effect on road safety.
North Carolina's program endures with support from businesses that profit from it, politicians who are friends of the auto industry and a bureaucracy sustained by more than $30 million it collects each year.
Criminal and civil charges have been filed this year against hundreds of garages and employees who passed vehicles suspiciously soon after they failed at another garage.
In about half of North Carolina's counties, safety checks of wipers, tires and other parts are just one part of the inspection. Emissions tests tied to federal clean air rules are required in 48 counties, including Mecklenburg, for vehicles made in 1996 or after.
Unscrupulous garages have weakened that part of the program by falsifying emissions test results, sometimes for bribes.
Cheating on tests poisons the air by allowing high-polluting cars and trucks on the road.
The newspapers obtained records for more than 23 million inspections in North Carolina performed since 2008 - the first public examination of the state's database.
The analysis shows that even though the program is supposed to be uniform from garage to garage, some stations rejected more than one of every five cars, while neighboring garages almost never found anything wrong.
"A lot of places just pass cars through," said Kamal Karim, owner of Hi Tech Auto, a repair shop in southwest Charlotte. Karim said cars he fails with legitimate problems simply go elsewhere and pass without repair.
Fraud, poor oversight
DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson acknowledges fraud is a major issue with safety inspections and emissions tests. He said the state is cracking down on enforcement with greater use of technology to monitor garages.
Robertson and other supporters say the benefits of North Carolina's program outweigh its shortcomings. A good inspection can force drivers to make needed repairs.
Lawmakers in other states, however, have abolished or relaxed mandatory safety inspections in recent years. They cite studies that found state-mandated safety checks do little to improve highway safety. Today, 17 states still have safety checks, down by almost half from the 1970s.
North Carolina inspection stations failed about 3 percent of vehicles from 2008 to 2011, suggesting a lower rejection rate than in Virginia, New Hampshire and Missouri, but higher than in New York.
Multiple reports on North Carolina's inspection program dating to the 1990s cite poor oversight.
In 2008, the legislature's watchdog agency issued a report that said inspectors performed inconsistent work with inadequate state enforcement. The N.C. Program Evaluation Division recommended eliminating safety inspections or exempting newer cars from safety and emissions tests because they rarely fail.
Critics point to the $106 million a year motorists spend on safety inspection fees and question the results. Of those fees, garages keep about $99 million for their work.
"When the government puts a burden on the public and makes them pay for it, there ought to be evidence it is effective," said John Turcotte, director of the Program Evaluation Division.
Purpose of inspections
Annual inspections are intended to prevent crashes and fight pollution.
Every year, North Carolina motorists take vehicles to state-licensed private garages where technicians check the brakes, tires, horn and other parts.
Drivers whose vehicles pass are allowed to renew their auto registration. Those who fail must pay for repairs before they can register their car.
Auto owners pay $13.60 for safety inspections, with $12.75 going to the garage. The state gets the other 85 cents.
In counties where emissions tests are required, including Mecklenburg, motorists pay up to $30 for the safety and emissions inspections. Garages usually keep $23.75, and the state collects $6.25.
North Carolina instituted safety inspections in 1966 after Gov. Dan K. Moore expressed alarm over a rapid increase in highway fatalities. He blamed mechanical problems for one of every 10 crashes.
But traffic death counts have declined since then, even as the state's population has doubled.
Cars today are safer, and parts don't wear out as quickly. Accident investigators found problems with brakes, tires and other safety equipment in about 1.4 percent of all North Carolina crashes during a recent five-year period.
Emissions testing in North Carolina started in the 1980s in Mecklenburg County and later spread to other counties to help meet federal clean-air mandates.
What the data showed
The newspapers' review of DMV inspection records from January 2008, when electronic data is first available, through March 2011 found:
In some rural counties, inspectors rarely, if ever, fail cars for safety problems. In a roughly three-year period, inspectors in Graham County performed safety inspections for about 14,000 vehicles. Two vehicles failed.
Garages have long insisted neighborhood demographics help explain differences in pass-fail rates between inspectors.
But 19 Mecklenburg stations rejected about one of every five vehicles for mechanical failures, while dozens of other nearby stations passed nearly every vehicle.
In southeast Charlotte, Jeff Hall's Tire & Auto on Monroe Road failed more than one of every three cars it inspected for mechanical defects, one of the highest rejections rates in the state.
On the same block, Creason Automotive flunked 37 of the 1,880 vehicles on safety inspections, or about one of 52.
The state says safety inspections, which involve putting the vehicle on a lift, should take an average of 20 minutes, but fewer than 300 of the state's roughly 5,800 inspection stations average 20-minute inspections.
Hundreds of garages inspected vehicles for an average of one or two minutes.
The data reinforce findings from the 2008 state report that says inspection stations took five to six minutes on average to examine vehicles.
"It is questionable how thorough an inspection the average consumer is receiving," the report said.
What the data didn't show
Robertson, the DMV commissioner, said data alone don't tell the full story.
In rural counties like Graham, for instance, mechanics and customers are often acquaintances, so garages repair vehicles before the annual inspection, Robertson said.
According to DMV data, garages in Graham County corrected and passed 10.5 percent of the vehicles they inspected, higher than the state average of 6.9 percent.
Garages also take more time to inspect vehicles than they record for bookkeeping, said Robertson and other DMV officials.
Brian Stahl, owner of the Auto Inspector garage on Central Avenue, said his garage passed 99.8 percent of vehicles it inspected because workers often detect problems with a vehicle before the inspection begins and direct customers to an auto parts store across the street.
When the customer returns, inspectors mark the car as passed instead of failed or corrected. It is a common practice in the industry, Stahl said.
DMV officials said they discourage the practice because it makes it more difficult for them to monitor garages and keep track of the condition of vehicles.
But they said what's most important is that vehicle defects are repaired.
'It was ridiculous...'
Those explanations, however, are little solace to motorists and some garage owners who share long-standing public suspicion that results can change from garage to garage.
"I recently had an inspection and failed because my headlights needed to be aligned, among other reasons. Seriously?" said Charlotte motorist Shellie Carter.
Carter said she had to pay for $400 worth of repairs before her car passed. She said she needed the money for other expenses, but "what alternative do I have? Not go in to work?"
Stanly County motorist Chuck Correll said he once worked at an auto repair shop that performed inspections. Correll said "it was ridiculous to see cars that passed ... just common sense would have never passed them."
Once, he said, a car passed a safety inspection even though the seats were not bolted to the floor.
Brian Jones, owner of South End Inspections near Dilworth, said some auto repair chains fail properly functioning vehicles to sell unneeded repairs.
"Some people are getting gouged" because workers for corporate chains must meet sales quotas, Jones said. His garage has inspected 23,404 vehicles from 2008 through early 2011. All but 328 passed.
The DMV has made cheating more difficult in recent years, Jones said, but there are still inspectors who take "tips" for passing vehicles that would otherwise fail inspection.
A former worker at another inspections-only garage in Charlotte said those inspectors frequently pass vehicles without closely examining them. The man said he did not want his name published because he still works in the auto business and fears reprisals.
The business model demands the garages move vehicles through quickly to build high volume and repeat customers, he said. Some garages in Charlotte offer motorists fake inspection results for bribes ranging from $40 to $180.
"They don't pay attention to lights, wipers and stoplights" because they don't make money from selling auto parts, the man said. "Inspection-only is going to pass it, to get repeat business."
David Harkey, director of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, said it's difficult for the DMV to ensure stations spread across 100 counties operate in a uniform manner.
The program relies, at least in part, "on the integrity of the inspection stations to do the right thing."
Many motorists try to take advantage of the program's shortcomings, he said.
"Neighbors and friends know which stations pass cars," he said. "It doesn't take long for word to get around. Everybody does it."
Spending less on repairs
In east Charlotte, Romo's Auto Repair and Muffler fails more than one of every four vehicles it inspects for safety.
Asked why his shop fails more cars than most others in the state, Romo's owner Alberto Romo said drivers bring in cars with bald tires, broken tail lights, oil leaks and black smoke coming from the tailpipe.
The economic downturn means many are spending less to take care of their vehicles, Romo said.
"If you didn't have inspections, they wouldn't fix it," he said. "A lot of these cars have obvious problems, and they have two kids in the back. This is a situation that could kill you."
Dave Armontrout owns The Boat & Auto Shop, which performs inspections in the tiny town of Robbinsville in the North Carolina mountains. Sometimes, Armontrout said, auto owners sense the inspector will fail their vehicle and they leave before the test starts.
They figure they "will find somebody to pass it," he said. Researcher Maria David and (Raleigh) News & Observer staff writer Bruce Siceloff contributed.