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No More 'Conditional Passes': What You Need To Know About Vermont Vehicle Inspections

Your car's "check engine" light can mean anything from mechanical issues to emissions concerns. We're looking at the end of the state's "conditional pass" and what it means for car inspections going forward.
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Your car's "check engine" light can mean anything from mechanical issues to emissions concerns. We're looking at the end of the state's "conditional pass" and what it means for car inspections going forward.

This month the Vermont DMV sent out a postcard alerting motorists to the end of "conditional passes" for cars failing emissions tests during inspection, along with a list of ways to get a vehicle "ready" for inspection.

For many, the postcard led to confusion rather than clarity. We're looking at what's changed for Vermont's vehicle inspections and what you need to know about getting your car ready for inspection.

This postcard, sent by the DMV to alert Vermonters of the Jan. 15 change ending "conditional pass" for inspections, has left many recipients confused.
Credit Vermont Dept. of Transportation
This postcard, sent by the DMV to alert Vermonters of the Jan. 15 change ending "conditional pass" for inspections, has left many recipients confused.

DMV Chief Inspector Scott Davidson joined Vermont Edition to explain what the Jan. 15 deadline means for your next inspections.

Why does Vermont do inspections at all?

Vermont's vehicle emissions tests are federally mandated by the Evironmental Protection Agency.  Emissions tests have been required since 1996.

When Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1991, it required all vehicles manufactuered after 1996 to be built with an "onboard diagnostic" system, or OBD. These systems collect information about the car, including emissions.

The "good neighbor" provisions in the Clean Air Act require all states in the New England "ozone transport region" to do emissions tests to address air pollution "that affects downwind states." 

Vermont's safety inspections, however, are not federally mandated.

The reverse side of the DMV's postcard details a lengthy list of how Vermonters should get their vehicle "ready" for inspection.
Credit Vermont Dept. of Transportation
The reverse side of the DMV's postcard details a lengthy list of how Vermonters should get their vehicle "ready" for inspection.

What if my car was made before 1996?

"You're good," Davidson says.

Vermont doesn't do OBD tests on pre-1996 vehicles. But Davidson says the annual inspections do involve visual checks of emissions components on older cars.

That includes things like mufflers, pipes and fuel caps.  

What changed with the Jan. 15 deadline?  

Starting on that day, vehicles failing the OBD test will fail inspection. That means you won't get a sticker and you won't be able to drive the vehicle until the problem is fixed. (Since 2017, failing OBD would still result in an inspection sticker and a "conditional pass.")

What's this about making sure my car is "ready"?

The postcard (which went out to all Vermonters with a vehicle registered to their name) also explains how to get a car "ready" for inspection. But many were left confused by what the card was telling them to do, or wondering if it even applied to them.

"'Not ready' means that the vehicle's computer, for lack of a better term, has not had a chance to check all the parts of the emission control system for problems," Davidson says.

This can happen if a car's battery dies, is replaced, or otherwise disconnected for repairs.

A disconnected or dead battery clears the car's computer, requiring the car be driven a while for it to become "ready" and for its OBD system to collect enough data from all the sensors and monitors in the emissions system.

This can take time: anywhere from one to 40 drive cycles. But for most vehicles, Davidson says a roughly 30-minute drive along both town and country roads should suffice.

My "check engine" light is on. Will I fail the OBD test?

"The check engine light illuminates for emissions problems. And that's it," Davidson says. The only way to pass inspection with a "check engine" light on is with a waiver. (More on that below.) 

A one-year "time extension waiver" is available for some vehicles that fail OBD tests. This DMV checklist shows what criteria you have to meet to be eligible for a waiver.
Credit Dept. of Motor Vehicles
A one-year "time extension waiver" is available for some vehicles that fail OBD tests. This DMV checklist shows what criteria you have to meet to be eligible for a waiver.

If my car fails OBD, what can I do?

You may be eligible for a "time extension waiver" for up to one year. But first, Davidson says, you should check your vehicle's emissions system warranty.

It's a warranty independent of other warranties on the car, like a manufacturer's "bumper to bumper" warranty.

Emissions system warranties may still be in effect for cars bought used, even second- or third-hand. And because Vermont has adopted California's emissions standards, warranties are broader than many states.

"The very base minimum is, the emissions control system, the entire system [is covered] for three years or 50,000 miles," Davidson says.

More advanced parts of the emissions system, like computers and catalytic converters, may be covered for longer periods, like eight years or 80,000 miles. Some vehicles have as much as a 15 year or 150,000 mile warranty on their emissions system. 

Davidson says drivers should look in their car's owner's manual or contact a dealership to see if any emissions warranties still apply to their vehicle.

My car's emissions system is out of warranty. Now what?

Cars that fail OBD and have an emissions system that's out of warranty may be eligible for the one-year "time extension" waiver. But only if it's passed all other parts of inspection and an estimate for repairs to the emissions system is more than $200 dollars.

Waivers won't be granted in consecutive years, so if you do qualify for a waiver, it means you'll have a year to get the emissions system fixed.

The Vermont DMV's online portal has more information on inspection readiness and emissions warranties.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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