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Case study: Jeffrey Simpson investigates Nova Scotia’s vehicle safety inspection system


Jeffrey Simpson, a reporter with The Chronicle Herald in Halifax, put Nova Scotia’s motor vehicle safety inspection system to the test in 2007. He took an older car to five garages—receiving repair estimates ranging from $30 to almost $1000—then used government data and interviews with mechanics and consumers to expose a flawed regulatory regime that required all cars—even new ones—to pass an annual safety inspection. His stories forced the provincial government to overhaul and improve its inspection process, curbed abuses by unscrupulous mechanics and garage owners, and saved drivers money. Simpson, a 2004 winner of the Atlantic Journalism Award who joined the Herald’s staff in 1996, is now an editor and writer with the Independent in London, England.

Q. What was the name of your story/project?

A. “It’s the MVI lottery” was the headline on the original article that kicked off the project.

Q. How did you get the idea for the project?

A. The provincial government introduced an expanded system of motor vehicle inspections in 2007, upping both the list of things mechanics needed to check and the cost to car and truck owners. The government claimed this was necessary to improve public safety and cut down on deficient or fraudulent checks, but many measures seemingly had little to do with such concerns. The government didn’t face much in the way of public scrutiny over the changes (or the original inspection system, because it had been in place for so long). But there had long been grumbling from mechanics and car owners about the system, so I decided to check it out. I thought about different ways to test the system, including going along with somebody taking their car to various mechanics. But I thought this might be a bit complicated to set up and could even result in mechanics carrying out the inspections differently than normal if a customer was accompanied by someone. So I decided to just take a car around myself—and not mention that I was a reporter until after the inspection was completed.

Q. What initial research did you do to confirm the story was valid?

A. I checked how motor vehicle inspections had changed, and I also attempted to obtain some explanation about why this was done. I looked into how widely used such inspections systems are in Canada. Then, it was a matter of taking the car for multiple inspections to see what happened.

Q. What was your initial theory as to what the story would be?

A. I worked at a service station when I was teenager, so I was well aware of the potential such places had for housing unscrupulous managers and mechanics preying upon unsuspecting customers. People have also long complained about the annual inspections, claiming some garages were tougher than others. So, while I expected to see discrepancies in the results, I really had no idea what would happen. It was a bit of an experiment and I went into it with an open mind. I didn’t want to draw any premature conclusions or affect the results.

Q. Once you confirmed that you had a story, how did you plan out your research?

A. The big thing was figuring out how to proceed with the inspections. I wasn’t going to identify myself as a journalist; obviously, the mechanics would be suspicious and either refuse the inspection or conduct it differently. But I had other concerns. I didn’t want to misrepresent myself, I definitely didn’t want to lie, and I didn’t want the investigation to seem too contrived, like I was predetermining the outcome. My biggest concern was that there’d be no story and I’d have to come back to my boss and explain how I’d wasted a lot of work hours and money for nothing. The car could have been failed and deemed unfit for the road right off the bat, meaning that I wouldn’t have been able to drive it away. A station could have refused to inspect it or asked some uncomfortable questions after seeing it had just been inspected the same week. It could have passed all five times or mechanics might have pointed out the same problems, making for a boring story.

Q. What secondary-source research was required?

A. I accessed each province’s website for information on its motor vehicle regulations and through some of them learned about studies that had been done and, in some cases, influenced their decisions to scrap such inspections years earlier.

Q. What were the most important interviews for the story?

A. Service Nova Scotia Minister Jamie Muir, who was responsible for the inspection system, was important because he acknowledged from the beginning that the system was far from perfect yet he was seemingly in no hurry to make improvements.

Another important interview was with Patrick O’Malley, the province’s inspection coordinator. He was in charge of inspections but unable to justify or explain why changes were made to the system. He also told me about punitive measures he could take against service stations, but wouldn’t divulge any details. This gave me the subject of a freedom-of-information request and resulted in more follow-up stories.

And, of course, the interviews I conducted with service-station managers after their mechanics had checked the car I’d brought in. I phoned, told them who I was and what I did and gave them a chance to explain. Every mechanic I interviewed—at the time and subsequently—told me they know people in their industry are ripping off customers. It was an accepted fact. But they weren’t happy about the stories. One asked me to bring the car back to have it checked again, but, as I have written about since, they wouldn’t always provide a customer with that luxury—especially if the customer didn’t pay for another inspection. I had all the written reports they’d provided me with, and I knew the car hadn’t been touched between inspections.

Q. What methods did you use to organize your research?

A. I kept the written records of the safety inspections at hand and kept track of who I interviewed—and transcripts of my conversations with them—on my computer. Later, when I dug into the story again, I received the results of freedom-of-information requests.

Q. Did you use any computerized techniques to do or organize research?

A. I used an Excel spreadsheet to examine the government’s records of service stations that were investigated.

Q. How did you use undercover reporting for the story?

A. I took a colleague’s 1997 Plymouth Breeze to five different garages. I wanted a sampling of different types of service stations, so I chose a Chrysler dealership, a Canadian Tire, a Petro-Canada service station, a Speedy, and a small independent garage with no sign, where the owner worked his way through a parking lot of customers’ cars.

I first went to a Petro-Canada Certigard station, where mechanics failed it and found $738.72 worth of repairs. Not only that, they also recommended over $1000 of additional repairs (front sway bar link kit, horn not working, rear tires too worn, left rear wheel-cylinder seized, and right rear brake drum scored). I went down the street to Canadian Tire, and they passed it, charging $30.21. Then, I went to Speedy. They failed it for the brake drum and two rear tires; the estimate was $319.41. Steele Chrysler failed it for the rear tires and brake tubing, which is expensive to replace due to labour costs. Their cost: $973.32. Ochterloney Service Station singled out the scored brake drum, rear tires, and the light bulb over the licence plate, totalling $289.27.

Q. Can you elaborate on the freedom-of-information requests filed for the story?

A. When I interviewed the guy in charge of the inspections for the province, I couldn’t get clear answers on why they changed the system or if it worked—it was carefully stage managed by the department’s communications people. So I submitted freedom-of-information requests. One was to determine how many mechanics and service stations were penalized for conducting shoddy inspections. Another was to see what kind of records they had on my investigation, because the man in charge of inspections told me he’d investigated it.

Q. How important were these requests for the story?

A. Getting the records of shoddy inspections was helpful in advancing the story and putting more pressure on the Nova Scotia government to revamp the system.

Q. Many projects have a turning point when it all seems to fall into place. Was there such a point for this one?

A. The turning point for this story was after I took the car in for its second inspection. Because it differed so drastically from the first, I knew I had the makings of a story.

Q. How many stories did you write?

A. In an initial instalment of stories for the project, I wrote about people who faced similar problems and the pressure they felt to have the work done where they’d taken the car for an inspection, even if they were suspicious. One man was charged by police for driving his car home when it wasn’t safety inspected. I later followed the case of a man who questioned a safety inspection, then wanted to lodge a complaint. The ensuing story illustrated a system that was arbitrary and too cumbersome to address driver complaints and ensure the public wasn’t being taken for a ride.

Q. How long did the project take to research and write?

A. Taking the car to the different mechanics and then conducting the interviews and writing the stories for the initial three-part instalment took more than two weeks. For some service stations, I had to make appointments several days in advance. I later returned to the story, using the situation of a local man as a further example of how the system didn’t work. And I also spent time filing freedom-of-information requests as I followed up.

Q. What was the most challenging part about writing these stories?

A. Probably explaining in simple language the discrepancies in inspections without getting bogged down in technical jargon. I also wanted to be fair to the businesses, so I reported in detail their findings and explanations. It was a trickier story to write than it appears because there was always a lot of information but not unlimited space in the paper.

Q. Over how many days did the stories run?

A. Initially, over a three-day period. Then, I dug back into it a year later, writing stories over several months as I documented the changes.

Q. Did your project include online elements?

A. We scanned the inspection reports and posted them on our website.

Q. On what dates did the stories run?

A. The first instalment came, 3–5 July 2007. The follow-ups were 12 December 2008; 2, 4, and 11 February 2009; and 1 April 2009.

Q. What was the most satisfying part of the project?

A. The most satisfying thing was that it performed a public service, helping to correct a government policy that was unfair. My work exposed a system that was arbitrary—mechanics and their customers agreed on this—and too cumbersome to address public complaints to ensure people weren’t being exploited. Several hundred readers phoned and emailed me to share their frustrations with the system and to express their thanks. It was obvious from the minister’s comments and inaction that the government wasn’t going to fix the inspection system on its own.

The day these stories were published, the provincial government announced it would be reviewing the motor vehicle inspection system. The department later made several changes, scaling down the inspection criteria and decreasing the frequency with which they must be performed. (A new motor vehicle does not have to be inspected for three years, and older models must undergo an inspection every two years, not annually.)

Q. What other comments would you make about this project?

A. This goes a bit beyond a consumer story in my mind, because it’s a mandatory government system from which the province and mechanics can make money. Meanwhile, there was little in the way of public protection. The Registry of Motor Vehicles was unable to adequately justify this public policy; it could neither explain why the most recent changes were warranted nor prove that the inspections were accomplishing their goal of keeping the streets safer. The province still hasn’t explained or demonstrated why inspections are necessary in Nova Scotia and not in other jurisdictions.