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When I buy a used vehicle, I usually take it a mechanic to get checked over. I understand there are new inspections in Ontario, so do I still need to get it checked? And is it a warranty? – Imran, Toronto.

Even after it's updated this week for the first time since the 1970s, Ontario's used-vehicle safety inspection is "mostly visual" and no substitute for a prepurchase inspection from a mechanic, a Toronto shop owner said.

"Despite all the hoopla, in principal, it's the same thing we're doing now," said Eli Melnick, owner of Start Auto Electric Ltd. "On paper, it's probably a better report than the previous one but all it really is, is a very minimal, mostly visual safety inspection – and I stress safety because other stuff like the air conditioning, the engine and any other accessories are not covered at all."

Starting July 1, Ontario shops that do safety inspections will switch to the province's updated light duty/passenger inspection standards.

You need the inspection to get a safety standard certificate, which you need if you're registering a rebuilt vehicle, a used vehicle that is being transferred to a new owner who is not your spouse or a vehicle brought in from outside Ontario.

The changes attempt to clear up "grey areas" by providing specific measurements for things such as thickness of brake parts, tire pressure and tread depth, Melnick said.

"Before, you'd look at the brakes and say they were fine, and the licensed technician would say, 'No, it's not safe,' and you'd have a pissing match," he said.

"The certification will identify brakes that are gone, tires that are worn out completely, suspensions that are worn out and have play in them," Melnick said. "Engine oil leaks are not covered."

Warning lights, the air bag system, speedometer and odometer all have to work. There are also specific guidelines for what cracks are allowed on windshields, he said.

"For the brakes, a millimetre-and-a-half of thickness is good enough," Melnick said. "Will the car brake with that? Yes, it will – but depending on the amount of driving you do, within a month, you'll need new brakes."

The updated rules are a result of nearly four years of consultation with the associations representing the province's 33,000 technicians at 15,000 inspection stations, said Dianne Freeman, executive director of the Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario (AARO).

The certification is not a warranty, "it just shows what's passed and what may need to be repaired," Freeman said.

For instance, tires need to have a minimum 2-millimetre tread depth – everywhere on the tire – on the day of the inspection to pass, she said.

"If the consumer purchases the vehicle and then drives 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometres) in a month and now the tires need to be replaced, the consumer will have to pay to replace the tires," Freeman said.

If the vehicle fails a section, you have 10 days to get the repair done and get it reinspected for free, "as long as they don't have to pull the wheels off," Freeman said. For brake inspections, the wheels do have to be pulled off.

The province doesn't regulate what shops charge for the inspection. Before the new rules, shops usually charged one hour of labour for the inspection. Hourly rates range from $90 to $120. Shops are saying they will likely charge an hour and a half for the new inspection, which requires about 10 minutes of paperwork and a road test.

"I would call Ontario a modest upgrade – they also included safety equipment that didn't exist in the seventies," said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association, a subscription-based watchdog. "They're requiring better paperwork, but we would have liked it to be put online – it's still a bit antiquated in that it's based on paper records that the dealer keeps."

The rules for vehicle inspections vary across Canada. We're not looking at commercial standards – just at standard passenger vehicles that haven't been rebuilt or written off.

Manitoba, Ontario and Newfoundland require safety inspections for all used cars changing hands.

British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec only require inspections for vehicles being brought in from outside the province.

Three Maritime provinces require regular safety inspections on all vehicles: Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick require annual safety inspections, while Nova Scotia requires inspections every two years (new vehicles get a three-year pass). The territories don't require inspections.

"I don't believe these programs have any validation in reduction of injuries and fatalities," Iny said. "There was a perception in the 1970s that you might take severely rusted cars off the road … but cars have changed a lot since then."

We asked the provinces when they'd last updated standards and whether they were planning changes; we didn't get responses by press time from British Columbia, Manitoba or Nova Scotia.

In Newfoundland, standards were last updated in 1994.

The others said they have updated their standards in the last 5-10 years. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec said they are currently updating standards. Newfoundland said it's looking at doing so.

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