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Vehicle Safety Inspection Laws

Most states have car inspection requirements to check carbon emission levels, general safety standards, or both, either at regular intervals or for first-time registered vehicles only.

Vehicle inspections are important because they promote driver and roadway safety and protect the environment from excessive pollutants.

The following is an overview of laws and requirements for safety and emissions standards that vehicle owners should know. Check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for specific requirements in your state.

Vehicle Inspection Laws: State Law Examples

Safety and emissions testing rules vary by state. Many states that use emissions testing, also called a smog test, limit it to densely populated metropolitan areas and exclude newer vehicles from these requirements.

Most states offer several categories of exemptions. For example:

  • California requires biennial smog testing for vehicles older than eight model years. Motorcycles are exempt as well.
  • Maryland doesn't require emissions testing for vehicles registered to senior citizens over 70 years old.
  • Only the most populous counties in Missouri, Texas, and Illinois require inspections for carbon emissions.
  • Certain counties in Texas require annual emissions testing for gasoline-powered vehicles between two and 24 years old.
  • Minnesota requires safety and emissions testing for certain commercial vehicles.

The Illinois Air Team Vehicle Emissions Testing Program offers a Vehicle Eligibility Check Tool on its website. Illinois owners can use their vehicle identification number (VIN) or license plate number to see if and when their vehicle is due for an emissions test.

FindLaw's Smog Laws by State page links to each state's vehicle emission testing requirements, where applicable.

Vehicle Inspection Laws: Emissions

While car manufacturers must adhere to federal emission standards, cars already on the road are subject to periodic smog testing.

Your vehicle's On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) system provides real-time diagnostics of its emissions-related components, including:

  • Catalytic converters
  • Oxygen sensors
  • Exhaust systems
  • Evaporative emissions systems

The OBD system also checks for malfunctions that could lead to increased emissions.

If your vehicle fails its emissions test, some states allow you to retake it after getting serviced.

Some vehicles can be classified as gross polluters if they produce twice the emissions limit. Gross polluters are subject to a different testing procedure or must be taken out of use permanently.

Some states have no car inspection mandate for carbon emissions, including:

  • Florida
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • South Carolina

Most states with emissions testing requirements vary by county or city, such as:

  • Oklahoma
  • New Mexico
  • Nevada
  • Missouri
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Texas

Other states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, require emissions testing for all vehicles.

Most states also have different standards for cars over a certain age. Examples include older vehicles like classic cars or antiques, as well as certain types of vehicles:

  • Motorcycles
  • Electric cars
  • Motorhomes
  • Diesel-powered vehicles
  • Light trucks

Emission testing fees often range from $15 to $50.

Vehicle Inspection Laws: Safety

Some states have specific safety inspection requirements, either for first registrations or on a regular basis. An annual safety inspection is the most common requirement, with more frequent safety inspections for school buses, motor coaches, and transit buses.

As with emissions testing, many states allow exemptions for newer cars or require safety testing for out-of-state vehicles. Some require testing for the first year of registration only.

Check with your local DMV for specifics. In general, car inspections related to safety standards check the following:

  • Lights
  • Brakes
  • Horn
  • Windshield wipers
  • Seat belts
  • Tires
  • Suspension and shocks

If you fail a safety inspection, it's typical to be required to fix your vehicle, such as getting new brakes or replacing a burned-out headlight. You must fix the vehicle issue before the state will renew your vehicle registration.

Some states, like Hawaii, fine car owners who fail a safety inspection.

Most states allow state police officers to inspect vehicles during roadside stops if they believe the automobile is unsafe.

Expect to pay around $50 for your vehicle's safety inspection.

Where To Complete Safety and Emissions Inspections

Some states maintain government-operated inspection sites, while others like Massachusetts outsource inspections to private mechanics.

Motorists in Washington, D.C. can use self-service stations to complete their emissions testing.

Some states also use recognized emissions repair facilities that vehicles can use to fix emissions issues. States that use these often have a facilities locator on their DMV website.

Your vehicle registration renewal notice may also include information about where to complete safety and emissions testing. It may list licensed inspection stations or provide instructions for scheduling an inspection.

Some states issue an inspection sticker you adhere to your vehicle after it passes inspection.

Safety and Emissions Testing Before Buying a Car

For the most part, new cars will far exceed any state's safety emissions standards. When buying used cars, it's a good idea to have a third party inspect the vehicle before purchasing. In some states, the buyer can cancel the sale of an automobile, even for new vehicles, if it fails a required car inspection.

Questions About Vehicle Safety Laws? Talk to an Attorney

Vehicle inspection laws are transparent and don't often require legal action. Some situations are complicated, and you may want expert advice about state inspections. Contact a traffic law attorney in your area for more information. An attorney knowledgeable about your state's safety and emissions inspection program can help.

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