What Is a Car Safety Inspection?

The what, where, and why of automobile inspections.

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Car safety inspections are a reality for millions of motorists across America. How often these inspections occur, where they are performed, and what is examined during the process can vary from one part of the country to the other.

Here's a primer on what to expect the next time you have your automobile inspected for safety.

What Is a Car Safety Inspection?

Although each jurisdiction has its own specific inspection requirements, in general, a vehicle safety inspection focuses on the mechanical aspects of an automobile that directly affect its ability to drive without incident on a public road. This can include verifying that the tires, lights, brakes, suspension components, windshield, seat belts, emergency brake, horn, turn signals and lights, exhaust system, and steering are all operating properly. Many (but not all) safety inspections also look for rust, focusing underneath a vehicle (chassis, frame, floor) as well as the exterior body (large areas of perforation, bumper).

Some states may disallow any vehicle that has an illuminated “check engine” fault light from passing, and can also include an emissions testing component alongside a mechanical inspection.

Who Performs Car Safety Inspections?

A vehicle safety inspection is always performed by a qualified mechanic. Depending on where you live, that person may be an independent operator licensed by the state, or an actual government employee or contractor working out of a state-run facility (such as an emissions testing location or a Department of Motor Vehicles garage).

In some parts of the country, both options are available to motorists, while in others, the state police also play a role in vehicle inspections.

Are Car Safety Inspections Mandatory?

Although legislation is constantly evolving, there are roughly 14 states that require regular car safety inspections either yearly or biennially. These jurisdictions are located primarily in the northeastern part of the country, although a few more states include Hawaii, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

This doesn't mean that other states don't have vehicle safety inspection programs of their own. There are areas where a car, minivan, SUV, or truck must be inspected if:

  • Ownership is transferred
  • The vehicle is imported from another country or state
  • It was involved in an accident and declared a total loss

A law enforcement officer may also ask you during a traffic stop to have your vehicle inspected if they suspect it is in an unsafe condition.

At the same time, some states make exemptions for inspections for specific classes of vehicles. These are usually vintage automobiles that see limited road use or those that are considered new and fall within specific age and mileage requirements.

What Happens if a Vehicle Fails a Safety Inspection?

Each state has its rules regarding a failed carsafety inspection, but for the most part, owners are given a grace period to repair the item that caused the failure. They must then present the vehicle for a re-inspection. During that window, you may or may not be allowed to actually drive the car or truck without risking a citation.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.