How Long Does a Car Inspection Take?

How Long Does a Car Inspection Take?
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Most of us go for physical/medical check-ups annually. When it comes to your car, you’ll want (and probably be required by law) to have your vehicle inspected on a regular basis, too. But when you drop off your vehicle at an inspection station, you may be wondering, how long does a car inspection take?

Depending on where you live and drive, the inspection might be annual or it could be only when you first register a used vehicle. Different types of inspections are necessary in different areas, too. Here’s what you need to know.

How long does an inspection take?

If you’re in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina or South Dakota, you’ll save a bit of time. There are virtually no inspection criteria in these states. But for the rest of the states, there will be some form of time commitment to keep your vehicle registered and roadworthy.

In states such as Pennsylvania that require a vehicle inspection every year, the process can take three hours or more if you have an aging vehicle that’s in less than stellar condition, plus any time required for repairs and a second visit to ensure compliance. In states that have less stringent conditions—New Jersey, for example—the drive-thru inspection stations might need as few as 10 minutes before you’re on your way. It really depends on several criteria.

Age of the car

If you drive a car that’s less than five years old, chances are pretty high that your inspector isn’t paying close attention. Unless something is clearly out of order, inspections are likely much quicker with newer vehicles.

Condition of the car

Like new cars, vehicles that look to be in pristine condition often aren’t as closely examined. An inspector or mechanic can typically tell when a car owner takes good care of their vehicle, and they tend to skim through the checklist faster. With a car that looks rough, even if everything is in order and functioning, the inspection could take twice as long because the inspector is diligently checking things. Also note: Dirty, greasy and muddy vehicles make it harder for the inspection to be performed.

Type of vehicle

Size matters. A basic, no-frills compact car is easier and faster to inspect than a jacked-up, four-wheel-drive, three-quarter-ton pickup truck. The size of the vehicle and its weight will affect how quickly an inspection can be done.

State requirements

Some states have tough criteria aimed at making the roads safer for drivers and bystanders alike. Texas has rather comprehensive requirements for the inspection, while states such as Delaware have minimal safety requirements and their checklist is shorter.

Inspector’s experience

A vehicle inspector or mechanic who’s new on the job will typically be slow and methodical, trying not to make mistakes. An experienced inspector will blaze through the checkboxes simply because they’ve developed a process and know what they’re looking at.

Modifications

One thing that throws every inspector for a loop is a modified car. How long does an inspection take when the vehicle is no longer in stock condition? Add a few minutes to an hour or more, depending on how heavily modified it is.

What is a car inspection?

Residents in most states should expect to comply with requirements for inspections. But what types of inspections need to be done, and what goes into each one? Generally, there are three types of car inspections: safety, emissions and VIN inspections.

Safety inspections

A car inspection for most motorists means a safety inspection. It involves having a licensed mechanic at a state-certified shop or facility review systems that affect your ability to operate safely on the road. Common inspection points include the exterior lighting, brakes, tires, steering and suspension, horn, windshield wipers, mirrors, fuel system and exhaust system.

How long does a state inspection take for safety components? It’s the longest type of inspection because it involves dozens of checkpoints around the car and under the hood, which typically takes around an hour. The purpose is simple: identify and correct vehicle deficiencies that can affect safe operation.

Emissions tests

An emissions or smog test is a different animal altogether. The smog check is performed by select shops and state stations to ensure your car’s emissions aren’t excessive.

An inspection includes checking the dash for warning lights, scanning for trouble codes related to emissions systems and conducting a sniffer test to check tailpipe emissions for excessive levels of pollutants.

VIN inspections

In some states, such as Oregon, a VIN inspection is required before titling a car for the first time in the state or after rebuilding a salvage car. In Pennsylvania, a VIN check is done during the annual safety inspection. The purpose is to ensure the VIN on the vehicle matches the vehicle ownership information, preventing drivers from fudging safety and titling requirements.

The VIN on the vehicle gets checked against the documentation, and paperwork is processed. It’s as simple as that.

What happens in a car safety inspection?

The requirements in a vehicle safety inspection vary from state to state. Some mainly perform a quick visual checkup, while others go in-depth to cover mechanical components. Although not every state requires each of these criteria—and some don’t require safety inspections at all—these are some of the components you can expect to be covered on the checklist.

Exterior inspections

The majority of a safety inspection is focused on the vehicle’s exterior. Bumpers have to be intact and securely attached to the car. All exterior lighting has to operate as intended, including headlights, taillights, brake lamps, turn signals, hazard lights, license plate lights and marker lights. The windshield can’t have cracks or chips obstructing the driver’s vision, its washers have to work and the wipers need to operate and clear the viewable area. Mirrors must be attached and not cracked.

Interior inspections

How long does a vehicle inspection take inside the car? Not long at all. Essentially, the seatbelts are checked for condition and operation and the horn is beeped to make sure it works. If the rearview mirror is attached and the dash lights work, there isn’t much else to check.

Mechanical inspections

Only a handful of states require comprehensive mechanical inspections. Tires are one of the major items on the list for almost all states. They need at least two-thirty-seconds of an inch of tread and can’t have any exposed belts from cuts or cracks. Inspectors can fail tires for dry rot, shifting belts, bubbles and other issues that could pop the tire and cause an accident.

Other mechanical components in inspections include brakes, steering and suspension as well as the fuel and exhaust systems. Loose or leaking parts will need to be changed to pass.

Road testing

Common safety inspections include(d) a road test, but that’s going the way of the dodo. For states like Pennsylvania that require a road test, inspectors check that the parking brake holds, the auto transmission engages into park, the speedometer and odometer function, the car drives forward and backward and that the stopping and steering performance doesn’t pull, shake or wander in an unsafe manner.

Certification

When your vehicle’s inspection is done, it either passes or fails. Either way, you’ll receive a copy of the vehicle inspection report (VIR). If it passes, a sticker is usually applied to your windshield with an expiry date or month. The shop files the inspection with the appropriate state department. If your inspection fails, you’ll have to repair the problems before the vehicle can be certified.

Common reasons why cars don’t pass inspection

You might be caught by surprise if your car fails its inspection. There are plenty of reasons it may not pass on its first go-round. Here are six common causes of a failed inspection.

Defective license plate lights

Certain burnt-out light bulbs can go undetected for months between safety inspections. License plate bulbs are one such bulb. The good news is that replacing a license plate light bulb takes a few minutes and a dollar or two for the bulb for DIYers of any level. A shop can replace the bulb for a small charge.

Torn windshield wipers

Torn wiper blades can fail an inspection. Wipers must effectively clear the windshield so you have safe visibility. If they leave streaks on the windshield, that’s not good, and it could mean you have to make a repeat visit once you get them changed. This is another relatively cheap expense and a job that takes the DIYer or pro just a minute or two.

Cracked windshield

Although you might think that you can see properly around a crack in the windshield, the driver’s primary viewing area from the bottom of the wiper sweep to the top of the windshield cannot be obstructed. If the damage is larger than 1 inch in diameter or the repair is larger than three-sixteenths of an inch or will be within 4 inches of another repair, the windshield can’t be fixed to pass a safety inspection.

Paying for a new windshield could be costly if a repair can’t be completed. However, you should check your insurance coverage. You could get away with just the cost of your deductible.

Excessive window tint

Window tint that’s too dark is a common problem for safety inspections on vehicles coming from out of state. Some states have no regulations for window tint, while others don’t allow tinting at all on front windows. Your safety inspection could fail because of window tint levels.

It’s a pain to peel off window tint and, worse yet, your car could look a little funny without it. But it may be necessary to take the tinting off for a safety inspection. A professional window tint or decal company can also do it for you.

Worn tires

Your tires might look good on the outside edge, but any area where they’re worn lower than two-thirty-seconds of an inch will cause them to fail. For some drivers, wear to that level can take just a couple of years.

Although you only have to replace the worn-out tires to pass a safety inspection, it’s best to replace them as a set of four—or, at minimum, as a pair. Tires are among the most expensive maintenance items on any vehicle. A tire shop will need to replace them for you, and it’s a good idea to get an alignment at the same time.

Loose tie rod ends

The mechanic’s undercarriage, suspension and steering inspection could pick up on excessive play in a tie rod end. As a part that takes a beating when you’re driving over potholes or rough roads, tie rod ends will eventually wear out. There may not be any noticeable symptoms, either.

A technician will need to replace the tie rod end and perform a wheel alignment to correct the condition. Expect a few hundred dollars for this type of repair.

Tips for a smoother inspection day

It’s never going to be what you might call enjoyable, but there are ways to try and make your inspection day quicker and less stressful to help it go as planned.

  • Give your car a once-over yourself. Look up your state safety inspection checklist beforehand and go over the items one by one, identifying any issues before they delay your inspection.
  • Don’t go at the beginning or end of the month. A bunch of people wait until the last day of the month to get their inspection done, jamming the inspection stations with long waits. The start of the month can be even worse because you might get stuck behind both proactive go-getters as well as people who let their inspections lapse the month before. Avoid lines by picking a mid-month appointment.
  • Go at an off-peak time. If you can, pick a time that avoids the morning and afternoon rushes by commuters.
  • Clean your car. How long does a vehicle inspection take when a car is filthy? Much longer. Aside from the pride of driving a clean car, it helps the mechanic work efficiently and do an accurate inspection.
  • Bring your registration documents. If a VIN check is part of the inspection, make sure you have the necessary proof of ownership that corresponds with the car.
  • Keep your car properly maintained. Much of the safety inspection is taken care of when you service your car regularly. Replace bulbs, wipers, brakes and tires as required to keep your vehicle running and driving well.

About Bumper

At Bumper, we are on a mission to bring vehicle history reports and ownership up to speed with modern times. A vehicle is one of the most expensive purchases you'll likely make, and you deserve to have access to the same tools and information the pros use to make the right decisions.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.