Lt. Bruce Scott of the Traffic Safety Unit of the Maine State Police looks at a vehicle inspection stub among the millions that are stored at the vehicle inspection office in Augusta. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The ritual begins every year after Thanksgiving and wraps up before Christmas, a blizzard of paper, envelopes and postage that is easier measured by the ton than by the page.

By New Year’s Day, hundreds of thousands of Maine vehicle inspection stickers are stuffed into thousands of envelopes and mailed to the more than 2,600 repair shops and car dealerships across the state.

From the tiny state office in Augusta, a small team of state police employees counts and files more than a million sheets of paper, all by hand, to make the safety inspection program function. It is a relic of an earlier time, and now one of the last of its kind.

There are 15 states with mandatory vehicle safety inspections, but Maine is one of just three still running on paper forms and handwritten documents. Despite the office’s efforts to modernize, state lawmakers and governors have resisted spending money or increasing user fees, particularly in election years.

“It’s a fairly inefficient system by today’s standards,” said Lt. Bruce Scott, who oversees the operation. “It worked 25 years ago, but the digital era is here. There really is a need to bring ourselves forward.”

Beyond increasing efficiency, a modernized inspection system would give regulators ways to prevent fraud and sniff out bad actors. Other states use automated tools to red-flag questionable practices and gather real-time data about what’s happening in the field. The tools are not fool-proof, but they offer a defense against “sticker shopping” for a mechanic who will pass a car that others would fail.


In Vermont, mechanics use a tablet computer as they check a vehicle’s components. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the systems also are digital, and every garage is equipped with a printer that spits out stickers that feature the vehicle’s unique identification number and registration details. Only Missouri and West Virginia still run paper-based systems like Maine’s.

Lawmakers have tried for years to eliminate or modify Maine’s system, to be able to grant exemptions or change to a biennial sticker. Bills also have been introduced to modernize the program, but all have failed.

Vehicle inspection stickers at the Maine State Police in Augusta, waiting to be mailed out to inspection stations. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Without new investment, every part of doling out stickers remains a chore. At the inspection program office, there is no loading dock or commercial entrance, so boxes of stickers must be carried inside from a pallet, stacked waist-high in an empty office, and carefully sorted by serial number. The stickers are distributed to repair shops and car dealerships in numerically ordered batches.

The stickers are then sent out with the mail.

Staff use a printout list and highlighters and pens to keep track of which place received which stickers.

To complete the process, repair shops and dealerships must mail back receipts, known as stub sheets, with handwritten information about which sticker has been placed on which car.


When the stub sheets reach Augusta, an employee sorts them by station and stacks them on rolling shelves, arranged by station number and year. The staff keep track of more than 4 million sheets of paper (just three years worth) on a series of rolling shelves, a carefully organized but brittle filing system that could be ruined by a strong gust of wind.

Every January, the staff purge the oldest year of documents, about 1.3 million pages, to make room for 1.3 million new sheets, the rough number of sticker sheets mailed out each year.

A few years ago, Scott tried to speed up the process by putting bar codes on the stickers and using a scanner to process them. But the paper’s glossy coating jammed the machine, and the state abandoned the effort, he said, but the bar codes remain.

All state inspection stations are expected to keep photocopies of their stub sheets on hand for two years so recent inspection information is easy for police officers investigating crashes to access, but not every station does that.

Going digital would reduce inspection stations’ paperwork, but it also could require them to purchase new equipment, depending on what digital system the state selects.

John Kimball, an inspection mechanic since 1965 and owner of Kimball’s Garage in South Portland, said he’s been ready for a new system for years. While he doesn’t love the idea of having to pay out of pocket for new state-mandated gear, it’s part of doing business, he said, and no different than replacing a broken tool in the workshop.


He spends hours every week copying and mailing paperwork.

“People don’t realize the paperwork involved,” Kimball said. “You get paid for the inspections. You don’t get paid for doing the paperwork.”

Fake vehicle inspection stickers are displayed in the vehicle inspection office of the Maine State Police in Augusta. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Maine’s stickers are also easy to fake. Some of the attempts are hand-drawn and laughable, but others are nearly indistinguishable from the real McCoys.

In 2010, drug agents executing a search warrant stumbled on a counterfeit sticker operation that rivaled the quality of the state’s own decals. The phony stickers – complete with a fake mechanic name, Jim Wilkins, and a bogus station number, came with a guide to applying them, which is now posted in the inspection office.

“Follow these instructions exactly or it will be your own fault when you get pulled over and have to pay a large fine,” it warns.


A small number of state police investigate complaints and do spot checks in the field, auditing inspection stations for compliance with the rules.

As long as Maine’s stickers are distributed in batches, garages will be targeted for burglaries, Scott, of the state inspection office, says. Thieves get about $100 per sticker on the black market.

And without a digital system, Maine has no way to gather and analyze data statewide or automatically flag questionable inspection practices the way other states do. There is no way to tell if a mechanic spent 20 minutes or 20 seconds examining a vehicle before approving it for a sticker, or if a one-technician shop is writing four stickers per day or 40, which might be an indicator of abuse.

Andy Libby rotates tires on a car at Kimball’s Garage in South Portland this month. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

There’s also no way to verify that the mechanic who signs the back of the sticker is the same person hunkered under the vehicle with a flashlight, poking at brake lines, prodding at tie rods and wiggling ball joints and wheel bearings. On a more basic level, the state has no way to verify that there was any poking, prodding or wiggling done at all.

Motorists file about 300 complaints about the system each year. A handful accuse mechanics of overselling – pointing out safety problems and offerings expensive repairs. Most complaints identify stickered vehicles that have no business on the road.

Maine’s system is built on trust – and when someone decides to cut corners, it can be hard to detect.


That was the case in Auburn, where the school system had to sideline much of its bus fleet in February after officials learned that a licensed mechanic had signed and handed off stickers to an unlicensed technician, who then performed substandard inspections, a practice known as a “lick and stick,” Scott said.

Unlike passenger cars, school buses in Maine must be inspected twice each year. State police might never have learned about the Auburn scheme if the tipster, a bus driver, hadn’t reported it.


Easing the paperwork burden with a faster digital system and raising the mandatory inspection fee would be a big help for garages, said Greg Moreau, a mechanic at Paulin’s Tire and Auto on Saint John Street in Portland.

John Kimball has operated Kimball’s Garage in South Portland since the 1960s. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Moreau’s shop charges $125 per hour for labor, but can’t charge more than $18.50 for an inspection in Cumberland County, even if it takes a technician 30 minutes. And the Cumberland County fee is the highest in the state, because of a mandatory emissions check.

“Am I against inspections? No way,” Moreau said. “Some people complain, but they haven’t been under some of these cars. The cars we see, I don’t want ’em in front of me and I don’t want ’em behind me.”


Lawmakers have tried to push for change, but the stumbling block has always been money. Some in the Legislature believe inspections should be abolished, and others want exemptions for certain vehicles, including new ones.

In 2021, former Sen. William Diamond, a Democrat from Windham, sponsored a bill to study whether inspections are still necessary – and if they are, whether the program needs a technology update. But the Legislature balked at funding even a study, so Diamond asked the state police to come back with research. Scott pulled together a volunteer working group of lawmakers, safety inspectors and shop owners.

The findings were clear: Maine still needs safety inspections.

Scott estimates that around 50 lives are saved annually by the program, a number based on a 2020 nationwide study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who looked at whether mandated inspections improved safety and saved lives, drawing on decades of crash data and analysis of state rules to determine whether inspection programs make a difference.

The group Scott assembled recommended that inspection fees increase to between $25 and $30, which would more closely align with actual shop costs and help fund the transition to a digital system.

Shelves are piled with vehicle inspection stubs at the vehicle inspection office of the Maine State Police in Augusta. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Yet lawmakers, once again, said no. The plan was tabled last session.

Raising mandatory fees was unpopular on both sides of the aisle, especially during an election year, and the governor said she’d veto the bill. But now that she’s secured a second term, the resistance may soften if the proposal is revived.

In a recent interview, Diamond, who is termed out, said he thought legislators would come around soon.

“I think the willingness and the acknowledgment that this has to be done is there, it’s just a matter of timing,” Diamond said. “Timing, as with anything in politics, is everything. And you have to have the right people pushing the buttons.”

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