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Vince Carnovale shakes his head at the mess he’s uncovered on the hoist before him and raises again the issue of the inadequacy of the Ontario safety standard certificate.

“I’ve had people drive here with no brakes, like this,” he says, motioning to the 2006 Cadillac STS in for a pre-purchase inspection.

“It’s metal on metal,” he explains, the friction material on the rear brakes completely missing in action.

Wearing a dealer’s licence plate, the Caddy was driven by the prospective buyer to Carnovale’s shop, Priority Plus Inspections, to get an honest assessment of the late-model luxury car. By law it should never have been on the street.

“There are too many unsafe vehicles on the road,” Carnovale says, referring to the large number of vehicles that come to him for a pre-sale inspection – many of them unfit to be driven even to his Woodbridge shop.

“People have had cars towed back to the dealer, that’s how bad some of them are,” he says.

What’s more, the Ontario safety standard certificate intended to ensure vehicles meet minimum safety requirements has become inadequate, industry observers charge.

“Buyers want everything to be perfect on a safety certified car, but it’s far from reality,” says Mohamed Bouchama, executive director of He’s been complaining about the outdated safety certification process for years, but his grievances have been falling on deaf ears.

The program that sees safety certificates issued by Motor Vehicle Inspection Stations – any of the 13,500 private garages in Ontario registered with the government – has been around since 1974 under authority of the Highway Traffic Act. The certificate is mandatory when transferring a used vehicle to a new owner who intends to put licence plates on it.

Trouble is, automobile technology has advanced hugely in 35 years. The electronic controls and systems on a late-model car were the stuff of science fiction in 1974.

At first glance the inspection checklist looks comprehensive: brakes, suspension, steering, tires and lighting must be working properly with specified limits on wear and tear. But there’s no mention of anti-lock braking systems and airbags, among other contemporary safety systems.

“It’s obsolete,” says Cam Woolley, CP24’s traffic and safety reporter and 30-year veteran of the Ontario Provincial Police.

“There are important systems that get overlooked. Things like electronic stability systems and ABS brakes,” Woolley says. He also believes the thresholds for tire and brake wear are too low.

“The minimum amount of rubber allowed under the act is too low to permit the vehicle to be driven safety,” Woolley contends. “The standards need to be raised a bit.”

Bouchama says he often hears consumer complaints related to poor safety inspections.

He cites the example of a woman who purchased a used Volkswagen Golf from a dealer who had kept a minimum amount of fuel in the car. When she filled the tank, the gas poured out of a hole in the tank. In the dealer’s mind, the fuel leak did not present itself at the time of the inspection.

She was left to pay for the repair, says Bouchama.

“People think it’s a 36-day warranty but it’s not,” he cautions.

An Ontario safety standards certificate is valid for 36 days after the inspection to facilitate the sale of the vehicle.

But the certificate is not a guarantee or warranty that the vehicle will stay fit for any period. It only means the vehicle passed the minimum safety requirements on the day of the inspection.

Consumer advocate George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association, says Ontario’s safety inspection process is “broken.”

“Fortunately, cars are much better (quality) than they were when the program was adopted. In our experience, dealers are able to get some pretty rough stuff to pass, and a safety standards certificate creates the illusion of government oversight which simply isn’t there.”

In the APA’s investigations, vehicles in Quebec are generally in better shape even though a safety standards certificate is not required at the time of sale, unless it’s an out-of-province vehicle. The reason: much better warranty protection than in Ontario, and a more user-friendly small-claims court.

Bob Pierce, director of member services for the Used Car Dealers Association of Ontario, maintains the certificate process has withstood the test of time and still functions pretty much as it was designed to do 35 years ago.

Pierce says there is little public outcry about the issue because it works reasonably well – although there’s no measure of its effectiveness.

“We have no way of knowing how many serious crashes were caused by unsafe mechanical conditions. The police don’t have the time or the resources to probe every accident,” Pierce says.

Woolley concedes there is a dearth of useful data.

“Less than 1 per cent of crash investigations examine the mechanical fitness of the vehicle. Most officers mark down the cause as `driving too fast for conditions’ and leave it at that,” he says.

In addition to updating the inspection checklist to include modern safety features such as airbags, our experts say Ontario should return to proactive enforcement.

“If you were to fix the certification system, covert audits would be required and the number of inspectors increased substantially,” says Iny.

Bouchama would like to see the ministry bring back the “ghost cars” of the 1980s, when rigged vehicles would be brought to repair shops to catch unscrupulous mechanics.

Woolley was involved in some of the fraud investigations when he worked for the OPP. He says today it’s easy to buy a “dirty” safety certificate for the going rate of $100, which is issued without ever seeing the vehicle.

He acknowledges the limited police resources, but wonders why more money doesn’t get earmarked for the task.

“Our officers wear a lot of hats – they’re asked to inspect big trucks, commercial trailers, school buses. The safety certificate brings in a lot of money for the government, yet little enforcement is done,” says Woolley.

For one thing, the court-levied fines could be higher. It’s not uncommon, says Woolley, to see the fine set at a fraction of the money the garage owner made selling illicit safety certificates.

Brian Humphrey, an automotive technician instructor at Centennial College and a former garage operator himself, also questions the ministry’s inspection regimen.

“In the later years of the business I don’t recall the ministry inspections of our equipment and facilities happening as frequently as they did previously, if at all.

“I think the government sort of took it that if there were complaints they would be dealt with,” he says.

“The City of Toronto used to have an excellent auto repair fraud squad of four police officers with a 90 per cent conviction rate,” adds Iny. “It was disbanded in the early 1990s.”

It’s too easy to suggest the government was swept up in an era of deregulation and industry self-policing.

After all, one area that did capture the attention of regulators was the rash of flying truck tires that claimed the lives of several motorists.

The transportation ministry has done a commendable job of policing the trucking industry ever since.

“We are seeing positive results from our road safety initiatives. While 43 per cent more large trucks were registered in Ontario between 1990 and 2003, the number of fatal collisions involving large trucks dropped by about 17 per cent,” the transportation minister at the time stated in a 2006 press elease.

The ministry also conducts random roadside and site inspections at truck rental firms to help ensure the safety “fitness” of personal-use rental trucks.

In contrast, the safety certificate program is not on the government’s radar, says Bouchama.

“I’ve met with them more than once and they always tell me: `It’s not important,’ he recalls.

“The NDP government hired a consultant to study the process in 1991, but the report was shelved. Nothing ever happened.”

Bob Nichols, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, says 51 inspectors are employed across the province to enforce vehicle safety regulations.

But it’s hard to say how many are preoccupied with commercial vehicle inspections.

“The ministry responds to public complaints regarding industry performance, investigating and enforcing the legislation accordingly,” he wrote in an email.

He says that while the ministry has not been compelled to update the inspection process, there have been calls to institute regular, mandatory vehicle inspections rather than require them only when the vehicles change ownership.

It’s a view that Centennial’s Humphrey shares: “I think annual inspections should be performed on vehicles that have been in service for five years or 100,000 km. Other jurisdictions do it.

“I think it would reduce vehicle accidents that are maintenance related.”


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