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Inspecting the Inspectors

In a four-part investigative series, the KVUE Defenders uncover flaws in the state's vehicle safety inspection program.

Inspecting the Inspectors
Author: Andy Pierrotti
Published: 3:55 PM CDT May 10, 2016
Updated: 5:34 PM CDT May 10, 2016
DEFENDERS 4 Articles

In a four-part investigative series, the KVUE Defenders uncovered facilities, cited multiple times for not performing proper safety inspecting, allowed stay in operation. The investigation also reveals inspection shops are more likely to fail drivers for parts if they also sell those parts; funding intended to help low income drivers pass inspections going elsewhere and an unexpected critic who wants to dismantle the state’s inspection program.

EXPLORE

Inspecting the Inspectors

DEFENDERS
Chapter 1

Repeat Violators

Violations range from accepting cash to passing unsafe vehicles to missing paper work

The inspection shop cited by the Department of Public Safety the most is Bob’s Garage. Its owner, Bob Bright, has been cited at least a dozen times in the past three years. The majority of citations were for “not conducting proper safety inspections.”

State records show the 75-year-old Winnsboro garage owner conducted at least 2,813 inspections over the past three years and didn’t fail one driver.

He makes as much as $40 per inspection.

"I make sure they’ve got everything correct on there," said Bright in an interview inside his garage. “I try to do exactly what it takes to make sure ones safe," said Bright.

Bright admits he’s surprised he’s still in business after he claims an over-aggressive DPS inspector has cited him for unnecessary problems.

“If she could find anything positive, she’d [still] have my license," said Bright.

A KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered Bob’s Garage is one of 188 inspection shops across Texas cited at least three or more times for serious violations, allowed to stay in operation while conducting thousands of safety inspections a year. In all, DPS handed down at least 2,397 civil and criminal sanctions against inspection facilities since April 2013.

Groovy Automotive in Austin is one of those garages. Records show DPS cited three of its shops nine times for "failing to account for inspection certificates " and "not safe-guarding them."

DPS said missing paperwork could signal someone is illegally passing inspections.

"Yes, we are charged with keeping those things under lock and key, but just like in Walmart or in anyplace else, sometimes bad people do bad things," said Steven Smith, a Groovy Automotive store manager.

RenEarl Bowie is the assistant director of Regulatory Services at DPS and in charge of the state’s inspection program. He argues the agency will go after bad actors, but it has limitations.

"We do take it on a case-by-case basis. If the station has been cited multiple times, it depends on the infraction whether. It’s a major infraction or a minor infraction, but we would have to focus on the type of infraction that the station committed to determine," said Bowie.

Over the past three years, law enforcement busted at least 126 inspection shops after it found inspectors illegally passing vehicles for cash.

Not all them were cited by DPS. The KVUE Defenders found at least 12 of those shops were never cited by the state.

"That’s what statute allows for. Statute treats it as two separate entities, the station and the inspector are considered separate under the statute," said Bowie.

That means, the inspections shop owner can stay open, even if law enforcement finds rogue inspectors breaking the law.

By the numbers

Total licensed inspection stations: 11,431

Total licensed inspectors: 43,076

Suspension and revocations (for stations and inspectors) in 2014 and 2015:

Suspensions: 263
Revocations: 557

Average audits conducted a year: 86,000

Go here for more information about the Vehicle Inspection Program.

Chapter 2

Profiting from Failures?

Texas doesn't use its data to proactively look for inspection shops taking advantage of drivers

The Defenders investigation also discovered that state-licensed shops are more likely to fail drivers for parts if they also sell those parts.

While the numbers show the potential to profit from failures, the KVUE Defenders uncovered the state does not use its own data to proactively look for inspection shops taking advantage of drivers.

To get this information, the KVUE Defenders filed public records request for millions of inspections over the past two and a half years from the Department of Public Safety, which regulates state inspection shops. No one has ever requested or reviewed the data before, so the agency charged us $1,038.20. The data doesn’t prove inspection shops fail drivers intentionally.

Near the top of the list for tires is A-1 Tire and Service in Llano. Of the 195 vehicles it failed over the past two and a half years, state records show 71 percent were for tires. Shop owner Diana Winngham said she’s not surprised about the high percentage.

A-1 Tire Shop & Service 
A-1 Tire Shop & Service 

“This is a very small town and it’s at a very low economic level,” said Winningham.

The small business owner said most of its customers drive until their tires are bald, which increases its tire failures. She firmly contends she is not failing tires to make money.

"No, we do not make a profit," said Winningham.

More than 164,000 Texas drivers failed for bad windshield wipers over the past few years. The inspection shop with the highest percentage of wiper failures is Alan’s Tires and Service in Limestone County. Of the 341 vehicles it failed, 54 percent were for wipers – the highest in the state. It also sells wipers.

Its owner declined an interview, but over the phone told the KVUE Defenders, “A past employee, who has not been here for a while, was a windshield wiper nut. In the past six months, we probably have not failed anyone for a windshield.”

DPS said the current auditing process of inspection shops does not include reviewing whether a business also sells automotive parts.

"No sir, not specifically. Whether or not the number of sales that they make pertain to a single piece of equipment, that’s not part of the audit process,” said RenEarl Bowie, in charge of the state’s inspection program at DPS.

Bowie argues the state will investigate if it receives a complaint, but admits it could do more.

“It could be something we could look at. So in two parts, no it’s not part of the audit process, but if something were to come up is it something our inspectors could look at? Yes,” said the DPS assistant director.

Highest failure rates for inspection shops by kvuenews

Chapter 3

Redirecting Funds

Money to help drivers who can't afford to pay for repairs isn't getting to them

As the KVUE Defenders continued examining inspection facilities, state records showed millions of taxpayer dollars intended to help drivers pass inspections, not going those who need it the most. The funds are tied to the Low Income Repair and Replacement Assistant Program (LIRAP). The program is funded with emission test fees drivers pay during an inspection.

Since 2012, LIRAP collected $173,536,339 from those fees. The KVUE Defenders uncovered just 28 percent, or $49.6 million, has actually gone to the drivers in need of help.

Austin resident Lee Clemons is one of those drivers who believes he could benefit from the program.

Clemons said his Ford F-150 runs great, but each year he forks out hundreds of dollars for a mechanic to find a way to turn his engine light off so he can pass a state-mandated vehicle safety inspection, only to have it turn back on months later.

“It’s a spirit, a ghost lurching around somewhere in the truck ,” said Clemons describing the engine light problem. “It just won’t go away.”

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) runs LIRAP. After multiple requests for an on-camera interview, agency staff declined.

“It’s not good TV,” said TCEQ spokesperson Terry Clawson.

In April, the Defenders attended a TCEQ public meeting. When it was over, KVUE’s investigative producer tried to talk to the commissioner, but agency staff stopped him and eventually kicked him out of the building.

“It seems that if [the program] is there to help people, you’d be proud to be on camera. Talk about it,” said Clemons.

TCEQ argues it gave KVUE the opportunity to interview over the phone. In an email about funding, staff wrote, “The Texas Legislature has sole discretion to appropriate funds.”

In other words, money intended to help low-income drivers went back into the state’s general fund.

Texas state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) is a vocal opponent of the state vehicle inspections. He believes KVUE’s findings show the program has no intention of helping drivers or keeping them safe on the road.

“It’s about keeping inspection stations in business and it’s about getting the state of Texas more revenue,” said Huffines.

Go here to find whether you qualify for LIRAP.

By the numbers: Below is a breakdown of the funds collected, appropriated and spent involving the LIRAP:

lirap by kvuenews

Chapter 4

Time to dismantle the program?

The KVUE Defenders uncovered multiple studies suggesting the state’s vehicle inspection program does not keep drivers safe. At least one lawmaker now plans to use the information as arsenal to try to dismantle the program.

There are more than 11,000 licensed vehicle inspection shops in Texas, which inspect about 17 million vehicles a year.

Jay Lucas, owner of Lucas Tire and Auto Service in Austin, is one of those inspectors. He firmly believes the state mandated safety inspections keep drivers safe on the road.

“I mean, we see some bad things in the [garage] that would be going down the road. If a tire blew out, it could kill someone,” said Lucas. Inspections account for about 20 percent of his revenue.

While Texas requires its vehicles to undergo inspections every year, a growing number of states have dismantled inspection programs over the past few years. In all, about 34 states.

The KVUE Defenders identified at least three studies which show inspection programs do not create safer roads. A 2008 North Carolina report found "no evidence exists showing the safety inspection program is effective." North Carolina eventually abolished its inspection program. Go here to view North Carolina report.

In January, the Texas senate transportation committee held a hearing on the state’s inspection program.

Economics professor Daniel Sutter, with Troy University, testified on his research. Two studies he conducted in the 1999 and 2002 showed inspection programs don’t keep drivers safe. Go here for Sutter's 1999 study. Go here and here for studies conducted by Sutter in 2002.

"We were able to find no statistically significant effective mandatory inspections on either fatalities or injuries,” said Sutter.

Texas state Sen. Don Huffines requested the hearing. He claims inspections cost Texans about $200 million per year in lost time. Go here for a breakdown of the cost of a vehicle inspection.

“It’s about keeping inspection stations in business and it’s about getting the state of Texas more revenue,” said Huffines.

Huffines is an unlikely critic. His family owns Huffines Motor Company, which operates dealerships across North Texas and performs about 20,000 vehicle inspections per year. The inspections account for about $1.5 million in revenue.

“I’m not the most popular person at the dinner table at the moment,” said Huffines.

Huffines plans to file legislation next session to dismantle the program, but it won’t come without a fight.

That includes opposition from Mike Nowels, president of the Texas State Inspection Association.

"To be quite honest about it, I would categorically say he's wrong," said Nowels.

Nowels argues a 2015 study by Melon University, specific to Pennsylvania, shows inspection programs do work and "should continue."

“Its conclusion was that it does save lives and it does keep people safer,” Nowels. Go here to view the Melon University report.

Huffines thinks the Pennsylvania study is an outlier.

“If this was about safety, I can assure you that the federal government wouldn’t have gotten rid of it in the 70s,” said Huffines.