Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sensors and Sensibility

My old van isn't old enough.

It was made in 1996. And, in my state at least, every vehicle made since then needs to get plugged into a computer when its state inspection is due.

My van has a check engine light on. The computer tells my mechanic that there's three sensors that need replacing. Also, one brake pad needs replacing, I need a new turn signal, and one of the little license plate lightbulbs is out.

The sensors themselves run about ten dollars each. The brake pad's about forty. The inspection is twenty-one dollars.

The entire cost of my state inspection will run me upwards of seven hundred and fifty dollars.

That little license plate lightbulb must be damned expensive.

No. It's not the bulb. Most of the cost will be the labor to dig inside the engine and drive train to get to the sensors. "Well, at least my van will run better," I say.

No, it won't, my mechanic tells me. It's already running about as well as a ten-year old van with 180 thousand miles on it can run.

"But it will be safer with these repairs," I suggest.

That's not the case, either. Well, yes, the brake pad will make it safer. And the fixed turn signal, too. But not the replaced sensors.

It seems most of the car is working fine, except the damned sensors. And the sensors need to be working in order to pass inspection.

"But the van's fine," I say.

Yes, it is, says my mechanic. But the sensors don't know that.

"But you know it," I say. "isn't that enough?"

Apparently, it isn't. Not for the state.

The state doesn't trust the mechanics. It only trusts the sensors.

There are garages on the northside of town that will, for forty bucks, slap an inspection sticker on your car, whether there's a check engine light on on your dashboard or not. I know of a few people who go there for inspections. Apparently, these guys do a brisk trade in these stickers.

The cars that will most likely have faulty sensors are the older cars on the road. These cars are driven, generally speaking, by people who can't afford newer cars. Many of them will have a check enginge light on, and the problem is not with the car, but with the sensor. The cost to replace these sensors is damned prohibitive, so many of them will get inspection stickers illegally. I'm sure a large percentage of these mechanics will slap a sticker on any car at all, regardless of its roadworthiness. There might actually be a problem with the car that will make it unsafe, but will these traffickers in inspection stickers make these repairs? Will they even know that the repairs are needed? Will they even look? If the car's going to pass inspection regardless, why even bother to inspect? This will increase the number of unsafe cars on the road, not decrease it.

I chose not to use one of these mechanics

So my mechanic has to work for two and a half days to replace sensors that will tell the state what he already knows, which will cost me about six hundred bucks more than it should to get it inspected.

This will ensure my safety.

Except for this: there's a tensioner pulley on my serpentine belt that's misaligned and should be replaced, or the belt might come off. And one of the brake line's got a bulge in it, and I should replace that brake line as well, because it's going to burst soon and I'll start losing brake fluid.

These are repairs that I need to make my van safe. But I won't be doing them.

I can't afford to have my mechanic do them now, because I'm spending seven hundred and fifty dollars to replace sensors, so that it will pass inspection. The things my mechanic sees don't need to be done to get that sticker.

I didn't go to one of those northide garages because I wanted to make sure the vehicle that transports my children is safe.

It's probably doing the opposite.

Next April I will emerge from bankruptcy. That's going to mean my paycheck will be about 35% bigger. I will be buying a new car*. At least, that's the plan.

But if, for some reason, this doesn't happen, and I'm forced to get my van inspected again, I think I'll be heading to the northside.

*Well, it will be new to me.


Blogger Jessica said...

Good laws gone awry. Too bad you can't just break the check engine light with the knowledge that everything is ok.

In Minnesota, I remember mandatory emissions testing when your car was older than x number of years. Ventura got rid of them, which was convenient, but every now and then I saw--no, smelled--a car on the road that made me wish the inspections were still in place.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Guy Wonders said...

Great title . . . obviously, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Or, as my dad used to say, sometimes you can't win for losin'. (A warning light just popped up on my screen - two cliches in one comment - sorry about that!)

6:46 PM  
Blogger mal said...

180K? you are doing good with your van. As regards the sensor issues, They may fail first, but if they are active, they will give warning of other problems developing. Or more likely they will just keep your van from turning into a smogger.

your point about who is driving the beaters though is valid. It scares me that some vehicle are on the road that should have been scrap last year

9:55 PM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

AAARRGGHH! Isn't it frustrating???? My mom's last car had a check engine light that stayed on for the entire 6 years that she drove it. My old man on the other hand insists on driving his 50 yr old pickup truck as soon as the snow melts. He fixes it himself. No computerized anything. He fully plans to drive it until he croaks of old age. He's nuts, but he's onto something....

7:27 PM  
Blogger Colleen said...

just go have a cupcake

you'll feel better

9:37 AM  

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