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Annual car inspection (aka state-mandated consumption)
Apr 17, 2012, 4:54p - Law

The way I like to think about taxes is that it's goverment-mandated homework. Just when you think you're done with school and you'll never have to do homework ever again, haha, think again. At least that's how it feels to me.

If you're lucky enough to own a car and live in the only state I know that likes to call itself a Commonwealth (of Massachusetts), you have a second bit of annual, state-assigned grudgery - the annual car inspection. Granted, it doesn't involve much math, but instead of requiring you to send money to the government, it forces you to buy unneeded car repairs. Not only that, it's a surprise purchase every time.

Let me explain. I have a decent car that runs well (a 2002 Mazda Protege), so what do I have to be worried about? Well, something new every year, it seems. The first year we passed, no questions asked. The second year I took the car to a different mechanic, and he noticed that we had a small crack in our left tail-light (which I'm pretty sure was there the last year). Apparently this crack was grounds for failing the inspection. So even though my tail-light worked fine, the state made me buy a new tail-light. Score $60 for the online auto parts industry.

I never knew the state had the power to make me buy something I neither needed nor wanted.

Come year 3 and our check engine light's on. I got a car computer ($100) to see what it was due to (a failed heater on an oxygen sensor that adjusts the air-fuel mixture during combustion). The car ran fine - it just meant that on cold days the engine wouldn't be the most efficient at combusting, until it warmed up (or so a mechanic told me). But apparently if your check engine light is on, you automatically fail the inspection. Score another $60 to buy an oxygen sensor and several hours spent figuring out how to install it. It did solve the problem (which I was mighty proud of given my limited but growing car skills) and we passed.

Now it's our fourth year, and this time I was worried about a little moisture that was starting to build up in the new tail-light they made me buy 2 years before. Would I fail because they would think there's a crack somewhere to let the moisture in? Should I open it up and wipe it down before heading over? That seemed a bit paranoid so I just decided to go for it, and luckily, they didn't fail us - for that. Instead, they failed us because our windshield wiper blades were cracked. What the fuck. Score another $30 to replace them, and now we have the paid-for right to drive again unfettered in the Commonwealth. Until next year.

But come on. I understand that an annual car inspection could result in safer, cleaner cars, and that's good for the state and the environment. But I think this law goes too far. I've spent several hundred dollars over the past 4 years that I probably would never have spent, if the state hadn't made me.

Is that really fair? Is it the state's role to force its citizens to buy things?

A similar discussion can be had around Massachusetts' health care law. In this fine Commonwealth it is illegal not to have health insurance, but instead of providing health insurance (which seems like the logical step if you want everyone to have insurance), you're fined something around $800 (I think) if you don't have any. And they check every year when you submit your taxes. Clever them. In fact, I think Obama's new health program is similarly inspired - if you don't have health insurance, you'll be sending another check to the feds every year.

But come on, you're requiring me to buy health insurance? What if I don't want any? I'm happy signing a document that says don't spend more than $X on me if I get into a car accident, and certainly don't put me on life support for more than a few days. And I'm happy to pay for those services when I want them. But I'm not happy paying before, and certainly not to some of the wealthiest corporations out there.

You know what the tallest building in Boston is? It's the Hancock tower. And what do you have to do to get your name on such a mighty building? Apparently sell insurance. Some of the wealthiest companies in the world are insurance companies (think of who just bought the Dodgers for $2 billion), so maybe I don't want to participate in their little racket. Maybe I want to go it on my own.

But guess what - that's illegal. So much for independence as a national principle.

In any case, in my attempts to determine whether a fogged up tail-light was illegal, I found the actual written law for the annual state inspection in Massachusetts. I've hosted a PDF of the annual car inspection law for your viewing pleasure. Alas, it does in fact state that "the rubber elements [of windshield wipers] shall be free from damage or tears" and that "lenses [of lighting devices] must be intact, clean, unobstructed, and free from cracks." Damn my mechanic for being so observant. Thankfully moisture doesn't count as unclean or an obstruction.

At least now I know what the law even is, so come next year perhaps I'll be less surprised at my state-mandated annual mechanic visit.

We're moving back to California soon, and this is one aspect of Massachusetts I'll be happy to leave behind. That and their puritanical liquor laws (I tried to buy alcohol one Thanksgiving and was denied). For a state that claims to be on the liberal forefront, it's got a strong conservative streak - maybe that explains how Mitt Romney was elected governor.

Read comments (6) - Comment

Sachin - Apr 17, 2012, 5:26p
Wow, that's super lame.

How much is the inspection itself?

When are you moving??

Dan P - Apr 17, 2012, 6:22p
Hey dude -- interesting post. Don't forget about our lovely Smog Check system out here in CA

Glad to hear you're heading back out to CA. Bay area or otherwise?

Marlon - Apr 18, 2012, 8:41p
Great read, thanks for sharing the gory details. Sounds like Mass is a fascist communistwealth. Come back to California soon, we love cracked tail lights!

nikhil - Apr 19, 2012, 10:53a
The inspection itself is set by the state at $29, and almost every gas station or mechanic is licensed to do it.

Moving to Bay Area, but not for 1-2 more years... Gotta keep the worms happy until then!

John - Jun 19, 2012, 12:47p
Fascinating post. On a similar note: what if I don't want to not slap people in the face when best suits me? When will government do the right thing and give me my independence back?

nikhil - Jun 20, 2012, 6:41a
Independence is never given. It must be taken.

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