R.I. Vehicle Inspectors Rack Up Violations

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

There are nearly a million cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles traveling Rhode Island’s roads every day. Even with increasingly stringent national and local standards for vehicle emissions, the transportation sector in the United States produces more air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions than any other country’s combined pollution and emissions totals, with the exception of China.

Even though the nation’s automobile fleet has begun to shrink, air quality continues to degrade nationwide, and densely populated areas, including much of the eastern seaboard, have seen an increase in ozone alert days. The American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air report gave Providence, Kent and Washington counties an "F" for high-ozone days, with 12 ozone alert days each in Kent and Washington counties and 15 alert days for Providence County.

The state of Rhode Island requires safety and emissions checks on all registered vehicles that are more than 2 years old or have logged at least 24,000 miles. Cars and light trucks with a gross vehicle weight of 8,500 pounds or less registered in Rhode Island require a biennial emissions and safety inspection, with the exception of vehicles registered as antiques. All used vehicles less than 8,500 pounds and bought from a licensed dealer must have a new sticker at the time of sale.

There are nearly 300 vehicle safety and emissions inspection stations in Rhode Island. Seemingly more than enough stations to keep the state's registered vehicles up to emissions snuff, but many stations and inspectors — whether through unintentional negligence or intentional subterfuge — commit violations of testing procedures and standards. The fact that late-model vehicles invariably have computer chips with the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) embedded on the chips doesn’t stop some inspectors from trying to game the system. In fact, nearly 80 percent of complaints heard by the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles Emissions and Safety Testing (RIEST) board are the result of reports emission-testing violations.

These "clean screenings" — as they are known in the vehicle inspection and regulation business — are manipulated by hooking up one car’s computer control system to the emissions testing computer while actually testing the exhaust emissions of a different car. This illegal practice typically triggers a report to SysTech International — the state’s provider of emissions testing equipment and monitoring — usually based on a reported VIN mismatch.

“The system isn’t foolproof,” said Lisa Renzi of SysTech, “but given the computerization of vehicles, it is becoming more difficult for inspectors to sidestep the system.”

Violation reports also can be generated through variances in technician entries into the testing system.

When a report is delivered to RIEST via SysTech, a hearing of fact is scheduled for the inspector and the station that employs said inspector. If the board finds that, in fact, testing violations have occurred the board may suspend an inspection license for no less than 10 days for the first violation, no less than 30 days for a second violation, and third and subsequent violations are served with a 180-day revocation. Any inspection station that accumulates more than five violations in any time period is subject to a lifetime revocation of its inspection license.

In addition to the suspension penalties, a fine of up to $1,000 per violation can be imposed. Inspectors found in violation have the option to appeal their case to Rhode Island District Court.

The state does actively pursue stations for violations by way of covert car. Fifty annual audits of inspection stations are performed in this manner, where the state sends vehicles that are knowingly in violation of safety and emissions standards to local inspectors to see if they are cutting corners intentionally or are just sloppy in their inspection practices.

“Violation reports are are collected during three-month periods,” said Marcy Coleman, legal counsel for RIEST, “which can lead to an inspector or station to be charged with multiple violations of the regulations at one hearing.”

Many vehicle inspection regulators believe Rhode Island’s safety and emissions violation penalties are too low. In Massachusetts, for instance, inspectors who violate state law are subject to a fine of up to $25,000, a civil penalty of up to $25,000 and one year in prison. Keep in mind that Massachusetts compiles violations on a per-violation-per-day basis. That means that if an inspector accumulates four violations per day, and this continues for 10 days, criminal and civil fines can total $2 million and jail time of up to 40 years. In June, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) sent out a strike force that found 92 instances of emissions testing violations at only five inspection stations, and violations aren't limited to your neighborhood auto shop.

In the sting, the well-known Herb Chambers Honda dealership in Burlington, Mass., was cited and the company has agreed to pay a $58,000 penalty for 29 violations committed by its employees and agreed to enter into a Last Chance Agreement (LCA) with the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Under this agreement, Herb Chambers agreed to a two-year suspension of its inspection license.

ecoRI News attempted to contact the Rhode Island stations that were brought before the RIEST hearing board in November, to determine whether their alleged violations were of the intentional or unintentional variety, but received no response.