William Hale, a 57-year-old cab driver, recently waited in line for an hour at the city's Southwest vehicle inspection station before finding out at 6:20 a.m. that his light signal was not up to standard. Reluctant to waste another morning in pursuit of an inspection sticker, he got the signal repaired and returned at 7:20 for a second try.

What he saw when he came back was enough to make anyone despair. The line of cars before him had stretched to nearly 100.

An hour later, there were still 40 cars in front of him.

"There is nothing I can do except wait. I would be lucky if I could get through the inspection by 9 o'clock," Hale said gloomily.

The heavy traffic and frayed nerves at the station at Half and M streets SW contrast sharply with the relatively relaxed scene at the city's only other inspection station, at Mount Olivet Road and West Virginia Avenue NE.

On the same Tuesday that Hale had his car inspected, at about 7:20 a.m. there were only 15 to 20 cars in line at the Northeast station. It took from 5 to 10 minutes for each vehicle to get inspected, according to two drivers whose cars had been checked.

"The waits have never got longer than 45 minutes since I began working for this station in 1982," said Harry Proctor, supervisor of the Northeast station. "The best time to come for inspection at my station is between 6 and 8:30 in the morning, when it is cooler. The worst time to come is between 9:30 and lunch time."

At the Southwest station, however, the recommendations were considerably less sanguine. "It is highly unpredictable to say when the line is longer or shorter," said Paul Boykin, the station supervisor. "At this time of the year, there really isn't a better time than any other time of the day for car inspection." During a peak day last month, he said, the number of vehicles waiting to be inspected topped 900, a number that was difficult for the station's 16 employes to handle.

He added, however, that the worst time of day to come is between 10 a.m. and noon. The worst days are Mondays and Fridays. Early morning used to be a better time, Boykin said, but the recent heat wave has increased the number of cars arriving then, stretching the lines and wiping out the advantage.

Robert O.D. Thompson, assistant director of the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, said the city has attempted to advertise the difference in the waiting time at the two stations and tried to divert people to the Northeast station. But factors such as travel time and work location make it difficult for people to change their habits.

The Southwest station opens at 6 a.m. with an excessive number of people waiting, Thompson said.

"For anyone who comes around at 7 o'clock, they are more likely to stand in longer waits than any other time," he added.

The reasons for the long waits at the Southwest station during the summer months include a decrease in employe productivity because of the heat, an increase in the number of new cars and in the amount of driving during the warm weather, and the rush to get cars inspected ahead of schedule so that the stickers do not expire during vacations, said Ezekiel Mobley, program manager for vehicle inspection and maintenance.

Mobley said that, despite the long lines, "The last thing we want to do is to discourage people to report on time for car inspection....

To reduce the lines, the transportation department has tried giving new cars a two-year exemption from inspection and extending operating hours at both stations. Current operating hours for both stations are 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The city also has authorized 49 privately owned garages and gas stations to conduct reinspections for cars that have failed their initial inspection at the government-run facilities, Thompson said.

A task force has been set up to investigate the feasibility of transferring the entire inspection process to the private sector, but no recommendations have been made, Thompson said.

He said the city has no plans to set up additional inspection stations because of the high cost.