Who gauges the need for Maryland’s strict car-inspection rules?

Illustration by Mark Todd

The comment still disgusts me every time I read it. Tucked neatly into the lower left-hand corner of my yellow carbon copy of the State of Maryland Motor Vehicle Inspection Report is the declaration, “All 4 Tires Stick Out Of Fender Too Far.” The inspector wrote this sentence in a journalistic up-style, I guess, to lend it a New York Times, headlinelike authority. Capitalization notwithstanding, the point was clear: My 1996 Toyota 4Runner had failed inspection.

Last year, my wife and I moved to Takoma Park from Texas, where they have different ideas about highway safety. That state, after all, didn’t forbid drivers from drinking until 1987; then it took the legislature another 14 years to ban open containers for passengers. People had warned us that Maryland’s one-time-only vehicle inspection could be cruel compared with Texas’ easygoing annual one.

I even had proof. Earlier this year, my wife was reduced to tears when she asked the vehicle gods whether her 1992 Honda Accord was worthy of the state’s roads. The gods smote her. Among other offenses, her car was deemed undeserving for its dark window tinting and a micro-chip on the windshield.

I knew my 4Runner would need work. In the three-plus years since I had bought it used in Houston, the SUV had developed some bad habits. Its brakes whined like kids during a sermon, and the windshield sported a long, jagged crack. But “All 4 Tires Stick Out Of Fender Too Far”?

In Texas, inspectors merely eyeball your tires and wheels. Violations involve big things, such as “Any wheel cannot be securely fastened to the hub of the vehicle.” My newly adopted state, though, was worried about two inches of tire protruding from my wheel well.

“You have to be kidding,” I blurted out when my mechanic informed me of the problem. He wasn’t, of course. He said the rationale was simple: The two troublesome inches of tire can pick up pebbles and project them at cars; that unruly rubber can even spray water. I didn’t have the sense to ask him how those interstate gushers, otherwise known as 18-wheelers, get away with this, mudflaps and all.

Besides, the physics of the state’s argument bothered me. According to Maryland, that narrow strip of rubber could routinely grab an appropriately sized pebble, hold it briefly between its treads, and then sling the tiny rock at the perfect angle into another car. This assessment struck me as the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration’s equivalent of the JFK Magic Bullet Theory.

But, so far, the bullet’s only victim has been me. My mechanic laid out the options for solving my problem: Cover the rogue tread by installing “wheel flares,” or go back to standard factory rims—purchased new from Toyota or used from a junkyard—so that my tires would retreat safely back into the womb of the wheel well.

The latter wasn’t an option at all. My alloy rims are the only accessory that gives my vehicle any character. Without them, it’s merely a standard-issue SUV without distinction; with them, it’s an oversized Hot Wheel.

To preserve vehicular distinctiveness, I opted for a set of Bushwacker “fender flares” from an auto-parts shop for $503.15, including installation. My vehicle’s cosmetic surgery was scheduled for a Monday. I received a call from the owner of the auto-parts shop on Monday afternoon: The flares wouldn’t fit. Even worse, he said, no flares would fit my 4Runner because I had the wrong running board. The owner sympathized and even called a used-tire shop to see if they had rims that would fit my vehicle. They did.

Two weeks later, with the clock running down on my 30-day grace period to fix all “problems” resulting from the inspection, I pulled the 4Runner into the used-tire shop. Its handful of shuffling employees searched through their racks of rims and mounted at least a half dozen. None worked.

The next morning, I called a Toyota dealership to get a quote on new rims. They were $187 each, not including installation. I balked at the price, and the clerk immediately gave me the number of a junkyard. A couple of calls later, I had my four precious rims, courtesy of Skip’s Auto Parts in Dumfries, Va. I bought them sight unseen for $50 a pop and had them shipped. I had no idea if they were actually going to fit.

The following day, I went back to the tire shop and had them install the used rims. My heart was beating fast: If these didn’t fit, I was screwed. I didn’t think I would have time to buy four new rims from Toyota and have them installed before my grace period expired, in three days. I was facing something worse than death: reinspection.

They fit! There was only one problem: My tires, like sea turtles who can’t fully hide inside their carapaces, still poked out from the wheel well. By about a half-inch. I didn’t care. My 4Runner was now equipped with what Toyota would have installed at the factory. If it wasn’t good enough for Maryland now, then no 4Runner in the state would be, either.

So with my butt-ugly set of rims securely in place, I went back to the Gaithersburg inspection shop, which promptly passed my vehicle.

But what exactly had I done here? Had I saved someone’s windshield from cracking or potentially even saved a life? Or had I merely wasted a good amount of money and time just to make Maryland (and a few mechanics) happy? I was determined to find out.

My first stop was the Takoma Park Public Library, where I researched Maryland’s state codes. Maryland has a lot of laws concerning vehicle equipment. Most of them seem important and fair; others seem stupid and arbitrary, such as the regulation that states that the bell on an ice-cream truck cannot exceed three-and-a-half inches in diameter.

The section “Tires generally” was of little help: “A person may not drive a motor vehicle on any highway unless the motor vehicle is equipped with tires in safe operating condition, in accordance with requirements approved by the Administrator.” I couldn’t find the Administrator’s requirements, so I called the Maryland MVA, which directed me to the Automotive Safety Enforcement Division of the Maryland State Police.

I spoke with 1st Sgt. Earl Beville, who alerted me to the “Fenders” section of the Maryland code, which states that the vehicle must be rejected if the “flaps do not cover the width of the wheels and tires….” Beville reiterated the theory that tires not sufficiently covered will kick up debris and water.

“Has this been documented? Has there been some research done on this?” I asked.

“Well, they did,” Beville said. “A lot of these regulations were done years ago.” He then offered me a short breakdown of how a state regulation comes into being: It follows the usual process of proposal, administrator approval, public comment, and final adoption—during which time, Beville said, the regulation is scrutinized in painstaking detail.

“Is there any way to get my hands on the research that was originally behind this regulation?” I asked.

“Probably not,” he replied, with a nervous laugh. “Right off the top of my head, those meetings and everything else—that was so long ago.”

I reassured Beville that I had nothing against safe vehicles but that this regulation struck me as particularly Draconian. Was there nothing he could produce to satisfy my need to justify its existence? Maybe highway-safety reports that show that accidents have been caused by these kinds of obnoxious wheels?

“That I don’t know,” he said. “The only thing that pops into my mind is a really hard, rainy day, and you have four lanes of traffic around the D.C. Beltway. If people are running around with their tires hanging out, the spray’s going everywhere.

“Vehicles, when they’re produced from the factory, they also fall under these guidelines. The federal government requires that tires [on new vehicles] be covered by the fenders,” he added. “A lot of our regs do mirror what the federal standards are.”

Not in this case. According to Tim Hurd, a spokesperson with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal government has no law requiring that fenders on new vehicles must cover wheels and tires. Though, Hurd quickly adds, states can set their own standards.

With no satisfaction to be had in Maryland or Washington, I turned to Akron, Ohio, the former “Rubber Capital of the World,” because all the leading tire manufacturers once called it home. I contacted the Tire Society Inc., a nonprofit whose mission is to “disseminate knowledge as it pertains to the science and technology of tires.”

The Tire Society Inc. should amend its mission statement to include the phrase “as long as our asses are not exposed legally.” I couldn’t get anyone to talk on the record, though one source, in refusing to cooperate, did say that debris and splashing would be a secondary concern with protruding tires, behind reduced handling and control—which indeed would be a problem if I were driving a monster truck with tires that could crush small villages.

The most reasonable voice I encountered also wouldn’t talk on the record. He said he wasn’t a tire engineer, wasn’t an official spokesperson, and had no authority in the tire business; he said he’s a retired financial officer in Akron, and he spent much of his professional life around rubber engineers. This is what he had to say:

“I think [governments] apply a double standard,” he said. “They will apply [a standard] to a car, yet a truck or other heavier vehicles are a far greater risk, but they leave them alone. You want to talk about spray and throwing things—and I assumed your basic question was about automobiles—but they’re nothing compared to trucks and other, larger vehicles that are on the road.”

So what’s the moral here? Motorists in Maryland—people, in other words, without the protection of lobbyists—are the equivalent of those proverbial 98-pound weaklings at the beach. But instead of getting sand kicked in our faces by oversized bullies, we get pummeled with gravel and rainwater from massive 18-wheelers that drive off with the state’s blessing. We, meanwhile, are left holding the yellow carbon copy of the State of Maryland Motor Vehicle Inspection Report affirming that the highway would be a safer place if we just wouldn’t allow “All 4 Tires [To] Stick Out Of Fender Too Far.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Mark Todd.