Texas vehicle safety inspections ending concerns business, drivers

Growing up, Larry Harris said, he knew he wanted to own his own business — and after a childhood of tinkering with cars, it felt natural to go into the automotive industry.  

“My dad used to work on his own car at night, and I used to work on cars alongside him,” Harris recalled Tuesday morning at his shop, Larry’s Auto Inspection on Cullen Boulevard in Third Ward. “Then I got my own car myself and I had to work on it, to keep it running.” 

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Trained as a mechanic, he worked for several repair shops before opening his own business in 1990, renting a shop on a busy corner of Cullen for $400 a month. Some 20 years later, he arranged to buy the lot where his business is now located, in a building he built, providing vehicle safety and emissions inspections. Thirty-three years after it opened, Larry’s Auto Inspection has two employees, a five-star rating on Yelp and customers who’ve been coming for years. 

It also has a looming problem.

Small businesses face myriad challenges, and on Tuesday, Larry’s Auto Inspection was hit with another one. Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3297, a measure ending vehicle safety inspections in Texas. Under the new law, which takes effect in January 2025, Texas motorists won’t have to get annual safety inspections as part of the vehicle registration process or pay inspection stations, such as Harris’, the associated $7 fee. 

As it stands, it costs $101.75 to register a typical passenger car or truck in Harris County. That includes a $51.75 registration fee paid to the state, a $11.50 local fee, an $8.25 inspection fee, $4.75 for processing and handling, $18.50 for an emissions test and $7 for the safety inspection. The latter two are paid to the inspection station, meaning a business owner like Harris collects $25.50 for each standard 10-minute inspection he provides. The rest of the registration fees are collected by the county tax assessor-collector, after the vehicle passes inspection.  

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Proponents of the legislation, authored by state Rep. Cody Harris of Palestine, described the safety inspections as costly and unnecessary. Harris was bemused by that reasoning, as well as the prospect of safety inspections ending.   

Larry Harris inspects a vehicle at Larry’s Auto Inspection on Tuesday, June 13, 2023 in Houston. Harris’ business, which has been in the auto repair and inspection business for more than 30 years, could be impacted when the state gets rid of vehicle inspections.Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle

“It doesn’t cost that much,” he said, ” And we are able to keep some of the unsafe things off the streets, like bad tires and bad brakes.” 

Greg Cole, chair of the Texas State Inspection Association, agreed.

“It really fails the logic test,” he said.

In his experience, he explained, balding tires are the leading issue identified by state safety inspections — and a real safety issue, especially when it rains. Further, he added, HB 3297 would have a severe impact on inspection stations such as Harris’, which only perform inspections and perhaps sell the occasional light bulb or wiper blade. 

In practice, Cole reckoned, most Houston-area drivers will save very little time or money as a result of the impending change. Seventeen Texas counties, including Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Galveston and Brazoria, require annual emissions inspections, meaning motorists in those counties will still need to bring their vehicles in for an $18.50 inspection once a year.

HB 3297 also calls for the state to create a “replacement fee” of $7.50 in lieu of the current inspection fee, which is separate from the $7.00 paid directly to the inspector.

“You still get the pleasure of paying the state of Texas,” Cole said, noting that the state collects about $150 million annually from that fee, with inspectors bringing in about $130 million.

As the lunch hour approached Tuesday, and as the governor was sharpening his signing pen, a flurry of drivers arrived at Harris’ shop. 

Lionel Jellins, a retired engineer, sat in the shade of an umbrella doing a Duolingo Spanish lesson as he waited for his Tesla Model X to be inspected. He had been coming to Larry’s Auto Inspection shop for more than a decade, bringing in both his Tesla and the Dodge Durango he uses for the trips he leads as a scoutmaster.

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As an electric vehicle, Jellins noted, the Tesla is exempt from the state emissions test. The technologically advanced vehicle, as it happens, also notifies him about issues with its tires or lights, which are checked as part of the safety inspection. Still, he said, under current law he is required to get the safety inspection, and has no objections to this particular errand: “It’s a big investment, and I love driving it, so it’s important for me to keep it running properly.” 

Jellins was skeptical of the idea of ending vehicle safety inspections in Texas for several reasons, including the impact on independent businesses like this one and the additional burden it would put on law enforcement officers who are already, in his view, overextended. But above all, he said, he thinks the annual inspections serve a purpose. 

“It’s the cost of ensuring that we have safe vehicles on the road,” he said. “As citizens, we’re responsible for taking care of our vehicles and keeping them safe on the road, and having an independent arbiter to gauge that is useful.” 

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Cole, of the Texas State Inspection Association, reckons that ending safety inspections will drive some inspection stations out of business. Harris, for his part, thinks Larry’s Auto Inspection can survive, thanks largely to the fact that he owns the property and customers will still have to come in for their annual emissions test, which costs $18.50. But he may have to lay off one of his employees or reduce their hours, in the face of the roughly 30 percent cut to his shop’s revenue.  

At 68, Harris added with a laugh, the physical nature of his work takes more of a toll than it did when he was learning to work on cars alongside his father. Still, he said, he hasn’t been planning or hoping to retire.  

“I’d like to take care of the people who’ve been taking care of me all these years. I’d like to be here to make sure these people get good service,” Harris said. Sometimes, he noted, the drivers who come to his shop don’t know that their tail light is out, or their tire is balding.

“The customer’s more important than me.” 

erica.grieder@houstonchronicle.com