Among the burdens that are uniquely those of District residents to bear, none is perhaps so onerous or time-consuming as motor-vehicle inspection, an annual requirement.
In case you have not been subjected to this ordeal recently--or happen to be an "innocent abroad" from the Maryland or Virginia suburbs--the following observations may be instructive:
Item: There are only two official inspection stations in the District. One is located on West Virginia Avenue NE and the other on Half Street SW near the Skyline Inn and approximately a mile from the Capitol. I can now tell you anything you want to know about the latter station: I was there four times in two weeks to get one vehicle inspected.
Item: During the summer months, the Half Street station opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m. (unlike the winter months when it remains open until 4 p.m.). A sign at the gate reminds drivers that in the event of an air pollution alert, the station will close at noon.
Apparently, most District residents purchase their vehicles in the summer rather than in the winter--judging by the length of the lines during the summer "day." I have been at the Half Street station at 7 a.m., at 10 a.m. and at noon. Each time I waited for at least an hour (more often up to two hours) before giving up or being informed by a uniformed official that my vehicle would not "make it" in the time remaining.
Finally, I faced up to the realities of the situation and appeared promptly at 5:10 a.m.--almost an hour before the station opened. Already the line extended down Half Street and around the corner on I Street at a considerable distance. By 6 a.m., when the station opened, the end of the line was out of sight.
At that hour, of course, very little else is visible--including a copy of The Washington Post, which I purchased from an enterprising young man who had clearly recognized the value of selling to a captive market.
There are, of course, certain positive features inherent in the D.C. inspection process: it is a highly democratic system that spreads frustration equally among all races, colors, creeds and economic classes of our society. And there is a tendency among all such groups to unite in opposition to the inconvenience that the District has imposed on its citizenry --in the same way, perhaps, as morale is developed in the military against the tyranny of a mean 1st sergeant.
The driver in front of me, for instance, was clearly a man of limited means-- judging by the appearance of his ancient Chevy. We soon discovered that we had something in common: this was his fourth try at the inspection line, too-- and he only managed it by taking over the night shift from a friend, thus enabling him to drive directly to the inspection station after work at 4 a.m. Like many full-time employees, he could not afford to take more than one hour off during the working day for inspection.
A young woman joined us, having overheard our conversation, and reported that she had been obliged to drive her two small children to their grandparents in Bladensburg so she could get up in the middle of the night and join the inspection line.
Before long we had a working "quorum," which could have formed an "inspection caucus"--had there been a sufficient amount of determination and persistence among us. The problem is, however, that once you have passed inspection, the indolence of human nature takes over and you try to forget about the whole experience.
While the "group therapy" undoubtedly had its beneficial aspects--and I am the first to admit that I derived something of value from my exposure to the common suffering of my fellow man --I cannot help wondering whether a better system might not be devised to ensure the safety of District residents.
In Virginia, I am told, there are authorized inspection facilities in approximately one out of every five service stations in the suburban area. Is it too much to ask that a similar arrangement be considered for the District of Columbia? Maryland residents, of course, are totally unfamiliar with the procedure, which is only required at the time of purchase or sale, and are hardly in a position to advise us on the subject.
Mayor Barry's administration, which has promised us new ways to cope with old problems, could perform a real service for its constituents by taking a hard look at D.C. motor-vehicle inspection.
There must be a better way.