By on July 18, 2012

For one Canadian auto writer, an emissions test turned out to be a giant time-and-money-suck that should have never happened in the first place, all thanks to an unscrupulous mechanic. Is anyone surprised?

Matt Bubbers’ BMW E30 flunked the DriveClean test the first time around at a “national chain”. After paying the $30 test fee, Bubbers had to take his car to a specialist garage for a $30 “consultation”. According to the regulations, the car can get up to $450 in repairs to help it pass. If the car doesn’t pass on its second time around, it is given a”conditional pass”, meaning that Bubbers could renew his registration, but the car couldn’t be sold.

The E30 ended up passing, and the results looked great according to the test printout. So why the discrepancy? According to Bubbers

“The shop fails your car by not warming it up properly. Then they offer to repair it, up to a cost of $450. After the repairs, it may pass or it may not. If it doesn’t, you’ve just lost $450, plus the cost of two tests, plus the entire value of your car. And the shop makes a profit on the repairs.”

Par for the course in Onterrible.

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36 Comments on “The Great Ontario Drive Clean Swindle...”

  • avatar
    Mark Stevenson

    Any kind of mandated vehicle compliance testing has been a boon for crooked garages looking to make money via unnecessary repairs. Safety inspections have historically been where thousands of dollars of repairs can be levied on unsuspecting and unknowledgeable motorists.

    Up until recently, I have thought these kind of practices should be “buyer beware” moments. But, when a private business has the ability to ground your vehicle or completely eliminate its value, something must be done.

    Ontario and all the other provinces in Canada have safety inspection requirements in some form or another. These inspections should be done outside of the private sector where there is no chance of a private, profit-driven party having the ability to use government mandated inspections as a loss leader to do unnecessary work.

    • 0 avatar

      Nitpick: Saskatchewan actually *doesn’t* have mandatory inspections. They are required on vehicles entering the province, but are not required at any other time. Instead, every spring the cops issue fix-it orders to vehicles they catch driving while scruffy. So, cars that are not cosmetically the best get tickets, and deathtraps that are cosmetically fine slip under the radar.

      To be honest, the problem in Ontario isn’t mandatory emissions/safety tests. It’s that you can pay a fee to get work differed for a year. Then what is the point of the safety test?

      • 0 avatar
        Mark Stevenson

        True enough on Sask.

        The “pay to pass” solution is a patch on another problem: the “I know a guy” backroom sticker deals that happen all over the place.

        Again, instead of addressing the problem by putting testing and inspections in public hands, they just try to patch the broken private system.

      • 0 avatar

        Alberta is the same as Sask. No inspections outside RIV and out of province. It is different on vehicles that have passed 12-year age mark. Then the insurance company will require a basic safety testing.

        Passing the inspecting authority to gov’t-controlled bodies will only produce another problem – corruption. Been there, seen that. The best option would be to not have them at all, but spend money on some very scary public awareness advertisements.

    • 0 avatar

      Of course, turn inspections over to a government agency. No chance for corruption or payoffs there. Added bonus: long wait times, indifferent state employees, no incentive for any kind of customer service or efficiency.

      I was a believer in auto inspections, but it turns out that they don’t seem to actually improve safety. Here in North Carolina they almost eliminated them this year, but only kept them because of protests by repair shops and auto dealers; the logic for keeping them was to preserve jobs, not safety.


      • 0 avatar
        Mark Stevenson

        While it may not stop someone from “paying a little extra” for a sticker, it would stop people from getting swindled into unnecessary repairs, which is where the majority of the dirty money is made.

      • 0 avatar

        “I was a believer in auto inspections, but it turns out that they don’t seem to actually improve safety. Here in North Carolina they almost eliminated them this year, but only kept them because of protests by repair shops and auto dealers; the logic for keeping them was to preserve jobs, not safety.”

        Whoa! Hold on there Co-cheese. Love the very narrow view. Its not about keeping someone’s job. Because NC had been doing these inspections for more than 20 years, the Auto Mechanic and Repair businesses of the state have put a lot of money into training their personnel, buying and maintaining equipment and paying the state its fee for the ability to proclaim itself an official state inspection station. Add to those already paid for costs, the personnel who conduct the tests normally have other duties beyond just testing, so there wont be many jobs lost.
        There was a recent study of emissions testing and testors that found that the more you resembled the testor (lifestyle, economic status) the more he/she was willing to give you a pass. Doesnt sound like someone too concerned with keeping that portion of their job.

      • 0 avatar

        Funny, last emissions test I had in MD, I was stuck behind a school bus on Davidsonville Rd that covered my front window in oily smoke…then I failed the test…asked to see the printout, the manager was livid I asked, but since I paid for it, I wasn’t taking no for an answer. Private sole-source contractor, state mandate.

        5-speed manual Saturn SL-1 (grad school purchase, hence cheap). Funny thing, the speed curve only showed three dips…somebody forgot 5th gear…I laid into the guy something awful, but he played stupid. I recorded everything I could- his name especially and asked to see the calibration paperwork…this went on for a half-hour before he realized I had him…sheepishly passed the car…yet another reason I am glad I left that idiotic state….

  • avatar

    True there will always be shady garages out there…having said that, one would think that this BMW owner would have had a reliable & trusted mechanic to take the vehicle too for this test in the first place. It is the same cost at any repair shop, dealership or otherwise. I bet he does now…

  • avatar

    He’s an auto writer rolling in a youngtimer BMW and doesn’t know that you need to warm up the engine and cat well in order to pass smog?

    I agree that it would have been nice if the mechanic had advised him of this (mine warned me of this with my old Golf, and he was right), but I’m not sure it was the mechanic’s responsibility to take the car out of the freeway to get the job done. Especially not for $30.

    The most frustrating smog-related thing for me is when a car’s emissions meets the actual smog content limits, but the car still fails due to a technical issue. On mine, the shop failed it because the timing was too far advanced. The car ran fine, emissions were within spec, but I still had to pay them to have the timing retarded. The car also made much less power after that, and when you have, at best, 76 horses, you want all of them.

    • 0 avatar

      My previous 2 Hondas scheduled smog/safety tests were in January (based on the license plate last #) and when the cars got over 150K I dreaded the test. Always passed with flying colors, but a couple of times I waited outside the testing station garage door, waiting for my turn with the temps around 0 to 5 below Fahrenheit. The testing station I went to was only a couple of miles away, but I always put about 10 miles on the cars before showing up to make sure everything was hot.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, I thought I could get by with just driving a couple miles through the city for the warm-up, but my ancient Golf barely passed that year. It does much better if you take it out on the freeway and really warm it up. Not sure what the impact would have been if it had had to sit for a while before the test. Also not sure if this in general is an indication that the emissions control systems are failing, or if they were always somewhat ineffective until properly warmed up.

  • avatar

    “Matt Bubbers’ BMW E30 flunked the DriveClean test the first time around at a “national chain”.”

    Let me guess: Canadian Tire, right?

    • 0 avatar

      I just added a comment about it being Canadian Tire on the Sympatico site. Bulbs and air fresheners about all I trust from there. Service is questionable at a lot of them, although there are some good ones. I guess it’s basically like taking your car to a dealer. You never know what kind of results you’ll have.

      Which is why it’s so important to find a good mechanic that you can trust. Unfortunately it’s so difficult to find good mechanics, but it is getting easier with Google reviews/Angie’s List, etc.

      • 0 avatar

        Think of the worst experience you have ever had at a dealers service department.

        Double, said experience. Now you may have an idea how Crappy Tire treats its customers.

    • 0 avatar

      @psar….Ya beat me to it,dude.

      Who, in thier right mind would take a BMW to “Crappy Tire”..?

  • avatar

    I remember quite a few years ago as a young man taking my grandmas 1980-something Oldsmobile to get emissions tested for her at the state facility. It barely failed, and there was a shop that was just across the street that billed itself as fixing emissions.

    I cruised by, showed the mechanic my failed readout. He then showed me the paperwork to file on how to get the state to actually pay for the repair since it was an older car. It would probably hit the max (around $800) I also noticed he had on a Rolex watch.

    The smart states have gotten rid of this nonsense a long time ago, and I have yet to see reports of the streets lined with dead bodies.

    • 0 avatar

      In Oklahoma we haven’t had vehicle inspections for almost 20 years.

      One of the few things right about Oklahoma, now if only they wouldn’t force me to go to Texas to buy beer and porn. ;P

  • avatar

    You’re seriously calling Ontario Onterrible?

  • avatar

    This is why we have “test-only” smog shops in CA. It’s $50-70, but at least they have no incentive to fail you.

  • avatar

    1) The first part of the test is the “warm up” portion where no readings are taken. This allows PROPERLY FUNCTIONING cats to get up to temperature. 30-45 seconds in summer (90 seconds in winter) at a steady 40-60km/h to warm the engine and cats under load on the dyno. That should be enough to get most catalysts warmed up.

    I brought many cars in for E-test that have sat in the parking lot (including my modded 1994 Supra turbo). They most certainly were cooled down by the time they hit the e-test, as I live a mere 5 minutes away. And they all passed.

    I suspect that BMW was borderline pass/fail to begin with, and the efficiency of the cat was on the way out, which is why it needed additional warming up. Therefore, the test did exactly what it was supposed to do and failed the borderline cat.

    2)How did the BMW owner know the car wasn’t warmed up? The operator can’t skip any part of the test (including the warm up), without a check coming back. Each operator has to log their bar coded badge prior to a test. When steps are skipped (as in AWD cars), it gets flagged and double checked by the Ministry. A friend’s Viper was too low to get on the rollers, so all the garage could do was the idle tests. The garage was flagged and investigated as there should have been no reason for a RWD car not to have all tests done. This prevents precisely what the BMW owner is accusing the garage of. If he did somehow know a step was skipped, did he say anything to the operator at the time?

    I’m really curious how he ascertained a step was skipped since those large chains do not allow anyone in the garage during e-test or otherwise. Sounds like sour grapes to me…..

    And I’m not defending Drive Clean. I hate taking my 4-5 cars in every couple of years. I’m just saying the system isn’t as open to abuse as it is being made out.

    • 0 avatar
      01 ZX3

      Illinois doesn’t even do the dyno tests anymore, they just plug a scanner into the OBDII port to check and make sure the computer and all the sensors are operating correctly.

  • avatar

    When I took my VW TDI in for Ontario’s Drive Clean test, the test consisted of a mechanic simply looking at the exhaust, with his eyeballs.

    Sooty clouds would mean a fail. Anything else — a pass.

  • avatar

    One “hot rodder” trick I used with great success on older muscle cars is putting a few gallons of Denatured Alchol from the hardware store in in when the tank got to about a quarter full.

    You’d be amazed how much that brought down the emissions, the hardworking, six-figure bureaucrats at the emission station were thoroughly impressed with the “repairs” I did in just a few hours when I came back after failing.

  • avatar

    The thing that aggravates, even tho it means an easy pass, is that there’s no test for diesels. They take my TDI and rev it, and give me a piece of paper. All for $35. Plus tax!!!!

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Laws like this mean well but the politicians didn’t think about the Law of Unintended Consequences. Last inspection my indy mechanic told me my tires barely passed and recommended a tire place. I waited a couple of months and got new tires. The new tires replaced OEMs and that’s worth a column by itself. I could easily afford four new tires, no big deal for me.
    Here’s where the Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in. Blue collar worker is driving a high finance interest rate or buy here pay here ride (no offense meant Mr. Lange). They can barely afford their car and then they get hit for a repair. Laws like these effect the ones who can least afford to pay.

  • avatar

    Drive Clean in Ontario was and is a make work project which generates revenue for the province via the Goods and Services portion of our Harmonized Sales Tax and remitance of a portion of the test fee to the province by the tester. The cost of the test equipment and training vs how much you have to give back to the province shut out honest small garages. The honest guys weren’t willing to sell you what you don’t need just to make a buck. Canadian Tire is the only one that does Clean Airs within a 100 miles of me, don’t know about dealers (I trust them less than CTC). Every 2 years I pony up $35 a car, bring the tester coffee and donuts and then cross my fingers. I had a car fail, they put it on a OBD and then retested and it passed. I got charged $35 for the test and $70 for the OBD, What a rip.

  • avatar

    Wait, if the repairs would be over $450, the car becomes unsellable?

    Would car insurance cover this possibility?

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    The last time I got one of my vehicles inspected ( Texas ) I took it to the neighborhood place and was having some other work done. When I went to pick it up toward the end of the day on a Saturday found out they had forgot to do the inspection . There were another couple of cars in the service bays and a number of parked cars in the way . To my surprise the guy never checked my insurance card or even moved the car into the service bay , just slapped the sticker on , even with a “check engine ” light on .Guess it was to much trouble to move the other cars.

  • avatar

    Where is the wondrous “free market” that is supposed to drive out the bad so the cream of the crop can rise to the top?

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