Checking out issues of concern or safety is the main purpose of a vehicle safety inspection. Some dealership service departments and mechanics offer a 100-point inspection; others have an even longer list of items to check.
Vehicles that are 3 years old or less generally don’t have many safety-related issues caused by parts failing, but it does happen (and might be covered by the warranty). As vehicles age, though, the more likely it becomes that parts will fail or deteriorate to the point that they can affect safety.
Many owners seldom think about the safety-related features on their vehicle until they stop working, but there are several things consumers can do and others that they can proactively call to the attention of a repair shop before something breaks.
Any vehicle owner can perform a basic safety check to make sure the lights, horn and wipers are working properly. Don’t check just the low-beam headlights; also check the high beams, turn signals, daytime running lights and side marker lights. The taillights turn on when the headlights are on, but the brakelights have separate bulbs that illuminate when the pedal is applied. Checking the brakelights and the backup lights (which come on when the transmission is in Reverse) usually requires a second set of eyes.
Also check that the front and rear defrosters can melt snow and ice, and clear fogged glass, whether the outside mirrors can be adjusted to the right positions, and that the washers squirt and the wipers don’t squeak, chatter or leave streaks. Continue below for other common items to check in a vehicle inspection:
Seatbelts and Other Safety Equipment
Belts, buckles and retractors wear out. Make sure all belts are easy to pull all the way out and retract smoothly. Yanking on an extended belt should make it lock in place (that imitates a sudden stop). Think you have a problem? Check your owner’s manual for suggestions and whether the belts have a lifetime warranty from the manufacturer.
Every time you start the car, several warning lights on the dashboard are supposed to illuminate briefly to show they are working. That includes lights for the air bags, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and other safety features (look in your owner’s manual to help identify these items). If any warning lights stay on after the engine is running, something is wrong and needs attention. If a warning light doesn’t come on briefly, that’s also a problem. Maybe a fuse is blown or there’s another issue with that system. This is important to check on a used car because someone may have disabled a safety system to cover up a malfunction.
Regularly checking the air pressure on tires is a good idea because underinflated tires wear out faster and don’t grip as well in emergency maneuvers or in hard braking. It’s also an opportunity to make sure there’s still enough tread to safely manage rain and snow. Also, look for excessive wear, such as no tread along the outer edges (a sign of alignment or steering problems).
Not sure how much tread depth is enough? Try doing the “penny test” or see a tire retailer for an inspection and advice.
Pads and rotors wear out gradually, so the regular driver of a vehicle may not notice that the brake pedal has more travel or that stopping distances are longer. Brakes will wear out faster in urban driving, where stop-and-go traffic is common, but how fast depends on the driver. Some lean on the brake pedal more often than others.
Instead of going only by feel or mileage, periodic inspections of the pads and rotors by a technician will tell you how much pad and rotor life is left.
Steering and Suspension
The daily grind of bumps, potholes, ruts and railroad tracks take a heavy toll on the suspension and steering over time. Bushings, ball joints, sway-bar links and tie-rod ends can absorb those daily beatings only for so long.
When drivers hear noises from worn suspension parts or the steering feels loose, they may not think much of it. Hey, the car still runs, doesn’t it?
But worn parts mean the vehicle won’t respond to steering changes as quickly or as precisely, and the car will become harder to manage. The suspension not only smooths out bumpy roads but also keeps the vehicle’s weight under control in turns and in emergency maneuvers. Worn suspension and steering components also will accelerate tire wear.
Mechanics and Dealers Service Departments
Many repair shops and the service departments at most dealerships offer free inspections of every vehicle they see. How much of the inspection will cover safety-related items varies by shop, but on a vehicle that’s more than a few years old it’s a good idea to take them up on it. If you have specific concerns, such as the brakes or steering, mention it.
Shops use these inspections to find more opportunities to sell you parts and service, but they can also alert you to serious problems or potential problems. You can always say no or get a second opinion.