Auto Service World
News   October 26, 2015   by Allan Janssen

The price of safety

Ontario shop owner is committed to fighting dangerous vehicles on public roads.


McMullin has become a proponent of mandatory annual inspections.

McMullin has become a proponent of mandatory annual inspections.

Rick McMullan digs through a pile of work orders, pulling example after example of safety related work that has, for whatever reason, been declined by the owner of the vehicle.

Corroded brake lines, broken steering components, leaking shocks, broken ball joints, bald tires… it reads like inventory from a scrap yard.

“It should never come to this,” says the owner of Ricky Ratchets Auto Repair in London, Ont. holding up one particularly offensive inspection report. “These people are meandering through traffic, on streets that bicyclists are driving on, that kids are on.”

If he was ever tempted to turn a blind eye to unperformed maintenance, he resisted it. So determined is he to help clean up Canadian roads that he spends much of his day educating his customers about the importance of vehicle maintenance. He has written and spoken about the problem in the local media. And he’s even started up a website – www.unsafecars.net – to publicize the blight of neglected vehicles on public roads.

It all comes at a cost. Some newcomers to his shop object to the “laundry list” of problems his technicians uncover, especially when other shops didn’t find nearly as much work.

“We’re known for doing thorough inspections and documenting problems. I guarantee we’ve lost business over it,” he says. “Some people just don’t want to hear the list. They’re the ones who don’t come back, or who delay their visits until the car gets really bad.

But there are wins too, like when customers admit to him, as they sometimes do, that they’re glad they had their car fixed.

For Rick McMullin, removing unsafe cars from public roads is part of the reason he’s in business.

He just got a dangerous Sunfire off the road.

“It came in on a hook. It was at the point where the steering rack and the sub-frame were no longer connected. The aluminum steering rack had rotted out. The brackets had separated from the rack. And the sub-frame was rotting out,” he says. “It just shouldn’t get to that point.”

But his biggest frustration is that there’s no compelling reason other than finances for people to finally unload a stinker of a car.Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 9.52.18 AM

The last time he’d seen the Sunfire was about 14 months ago when it came in for a battery. The owner didn’t like the laundry list of suggested repairs he’d come up with so she went elsewhere for oil changes and tires. McMullin wishes every shop was as vigilant about pointing out dangerous vehicles.

“What’s more dangerous? Texting and driving, or an inability to steer the car,” he asks. “When I’m on the 401, I want the guy beside me to be able to steer and the guy behind me to be able to stop.”

Like many in the industry, McMullin has become a proponent of mandatory annual inspections.

“Here’s my reasoning,” he says. “People who are a year away from an emissions test will take care of things that might cause their car to fail. If we had a safety inspection, people will be more aware of what would cause their vehicle to fail, and they’d be more inclined to address it.”

He says there needs to be a real threat that their vehicle – the one they rely on every day to get them to work and school and the soccer field – will be taken off the road if it fails.

“And none of that ‘conditional pass’ stuff, either,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to me to just do some of the work, not all of it, because it’s too expensive. Yes, it’s going to cost money. That’s the price of safety.”

He’s aware that annual inspections might have the unfortunate effect of making ‘lick and stick’ inspections more common. He knows they happen. He’s seen it. He even bought a safety certificate for his own vehicle – at a sub shop late at night. All he needed to provide was the VIN and the mileage reading. They never even saw the car.

Rick McMullin, checking out the Sunfire that came in on a hook recently. Some people just don’t want to hear the laundry list of problems their cars have.

Rick McMullin, checking out the Sunfire that came in on a hook recently. Some people just don’t want to hear the laundry list of problems their cars have.

He even showed the bogus certificate to some provincial inspection officers. They said they were aware of the problem, and promised that the province has plans to do something about it.

“Am I different from most mechanics?” he asks. “I think there’s a desensitization going on. Some people think we’re not going to change consumer attitudes. We’re not going to solve chronic neglect. We’re not going to change the world. But I think we have to try.”

It may stem from the lower ball joint that dropped out of the Ford Taurus he was driving as he was about to get on the highway. Or that door that came open on an old MG when he was a kid. He knows bad stuff can happen.

“When a child walks down the street, he shouldn’t be in danger of being hit by a car that has lost its steering. Does it have to come to a senseless death like that before we take the problem of unsafe vehicles seriously?”

He says he’ll continue to campaign for annual inspections as the best way to make a much-needed change.

“I’ve seen a lot of broken cars and, I’ll tell you, the E-test taught me something,” he says. “It showed that if you make people aware that there’s an inspection coming and it has real consequences, they’ll do the right thing.”

Allan Janssen is the editor of CARS magazine. You can reach him at 416-614-5814 or allan@carsmagazine.ca.


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3 Comments » for The price of safety
  1. Clara Hooper says:

    I totally agree with this tech / shop owner. I am also an automotive repair shop owner and I also advise customers of their vehicles condition. Some people are happy to know, some are not. The main motivation is lack of funds so customers leave everything to the very end… this also scares me. The roads need to be safe. If a car is unsafe, we will call the RCMP and have it placed with a Box 1 Tow Only until repaired. It seems like such a harsh thing to have to do but some people have the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome and feel they are fine to keep on driving it. I always think to myself; will this harm someone else on the road? if it has the potential then it must be repaired or replaced. Human life is far greater then anything else.

  2. As a tech and shop owner I try to educate people about their car and maintenance required. Too often it is not convenient or there isn’t the money required. After a customer wrote off their car in winter due to bald tires that they were sure would be ok, I wrote a letter to mto advocating a yearly inspection. In response they informed me that car owners are obligated to maintain their vehicles in safe condition so an annual inspection would not be required. Since our industry does not carry the weight required to change this issue. I believe we should lobby the insurance companies to institute a safety for policy renewal. If vehicle accidents could be reduced by 5-10% through better maintenance, think of the savings to the insurance companies, police departments, hospitals, etc.

  3. Doug Jordan says:

    As a Canadian Tire store General Manager I know that we are often accused of “over inspecting” or “padding the bill” when we do a thorough professional inspection.
    We have made it a policy at our stores to inform the owners of blatantly unsafe vehicles that they will not be allowed to take their vehicles back on the road until they are safe. That does not necessarily mean they have to do the work at our shop (although let’s face it– I would like them to). They can have it done elsewhere, or not at all, in which case they must have it towed (not driven) from our premises, at their expense.
    This may seem harsh but under the law as a licensed Safety Inspection station we are obligated to take unsafe cars off the roads. Indeed, licensed technicians are obligated by law to not allow unsafe vehicles on our roads.
    We have lost customers over this policy but I rest easier knowing that at least these vehicles will not be on the same roads as our children.

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