Goof of the Month: When Not to Trust a Safety Certificate

Goof of the Month: When Not to Trust a Safety Certificate

Welcome to Goof of the Month! Every month, we ask for stories from our technician pals which highlight the need to understand one’s vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.

This month’s story comes to us from Nick Labrie, an automotive technician in Sudbury, Ontario. It reinforces the importance of paying attention to the way your ride sounds, and not taking unusual noises lightly, even if you feel that your car is ultra-reliable.

Labrie shares a story about a customer who had their older, higher-mileage Honda Civic brought into his shop on a flatbed, with one wheel wrenched so violently out of place that it damaged the vehicle’s fender. A poorly maintained part on this customer’s car caused a small accident that could have been a much bigger one, and also led to a considerable repair bill.

The Complaint

Goof of the Month: When Not to Trust a Safety Certificate

Labrie noticed a few factors that contributed to the vehicle’s eventual involvement in an accident, caused by the failure of a suspension component.

“This customer had bought the car in question very recently, but had been ignoring a clunk from his suspension for almost two weeks since he started driving it,” Labrie explains.

The vehicle was a 1999 Honda Civic with higher mileage, bought by a younger customer, in relatively good shape – except for the suspension.

The Mechanic

Goof of the Month: When Not to Trust a Safety Certificate

Labrie went to the parking lot to check out the vehicle. He noted that the wheel was sitting out of position, turned perpendicular to the car’s body, and that the fender had been damaged by contact with the wheel when it came out of position.

“Ball joints. That’s what pops into my head instantly when I see this,” Labrie notes. “We see this somewhat commonly, especially on older, higher-mileage cars like this.”
Ball joints are a part that’s used to attach two suspension components to one another, while allowing them to move and flex in relation to one another. A ball joint is typically pressed together, and consists of two halves, each attached a different part of the suspension.

“As ball joints age, they wear out,” Labrie says. “They are a part you should have inspected regularly to confirm that they’re not deteriorating. A worn ball joint will typically make a loud clunking noise, and that’s your clue to have it looked at. Ignore it, and eventually the ball joint, and the suspension components that it’s attached to, can separate. This causes the suspension to fall apart, and the wheel to become partially detached, in some cases.”

If you’ve ever seen a car on the side of the road with one wheel wrenched violently out of place, a busted fender around the wheel, and the front bumper on the ground, it’s typically caused by ball-joint failure, or the resulting accident or impact.

Labrie’s customer told him that he suffered a total loss of control, which resulted in his Civic sliding hard into a curb, which destroyed the wheel and tire on that side of the vehicle, and could have injured or killed someone. Thankfully, the customer had been driving at a fairly low speed on an empty road when the ball joint separated.
“Imagine this had happened at speed on a busy highway. The customer, and the car, both wouldn’t have been here to tell the tale, in any likelihood.”

A few factors of note: First, the customer had only owned this car for two weeks, so he hadn’t been ignoring the clunking sound for months, as Labrie says is typical in this situation. Second, the vehicle, apparently, had been sold with a safety certificate, though the mechanic who completed the certificate somehow missed the worn ball joint, if they inspected it at all.

Goof of the Month: When Not to Trust a Safety Certificate

“Absolutely no way that ball joint should have passed safety,” says Labrie. “I suspect the seller was trying to pass off the repair onto the new buyer of this car. Maybe he had a mechanic pal that filled out a safety certification on the side without even looking the car over. Or, maybe he missed it, somehow. But this type of wear doesn’t pop up in two weeks. The failed ball joint is one issue, but to me, the bigger one is that this customer could have been injured or worse. There’s  something fishy with the safety certification here.”

Third? Labrie’s customer said he asked a technician at a local oil-change franchise to check the clunk out a few days earlier, while his new Civic was in for service. That technician said he didn’t see a problem.

“There’s a big problem with this: Mostly, oil-change franchises don’t hire mechanics. They hire oil-change techs. Was the person checking out this Civic – and providing advice – a licensed automotive technician at all? Because if they were, they’d have known that you can’t properly check this type of ball joint while the car is sitting with its wheels on the ground, which it was. It’s important to make sure you get your mechanical advice from an actual mechanic.”

A final note: When Labrie asked the customer why he hadn’t taken the vehicle in sooner, the customer replied, “It’s a Honda, I figured it was probably OK.” This flawed thinking neglects the fact that a vehicle, Honda or otherwise, is a machine built of parts and components that need occasional servicing, attention and replacement. Ignoring issues because you believe otherwise is a great way to suffer an accident.

The Outcome

Labrie’s customer left on his spare tire, after footing a hefty bill for repair of the suspension. The customer later sourced out a new fender from a local scrapyard and installed it, and replaced the wheels and front tires on the car as well. Replacing the ball joint at the first sign of trouble, before it failed, would have literally saved this customer hundreds of dollars.

Lesson Learned

Goof of the Month: When Not to Trust a Safety Certificate

There are a few takeaways from this story. First, if your used car is sold with a safety certification, do your homework and make sure the issuing technician, or shop, is reputable. Second, if seeking mechanical advice about your car, or an unusual noise your car is making, be sure that said advice comes from a licensed automotive tech. Third, regardless of the brand or type of vehicle you’re considering, remember that parts eventually wear out and need replacement.

And finally, as Labrie explains, “Healthy cars don’t clunk. And a clunk means something is wrong, possibly seriously. Take a suspension clunk as a sign to go to your mechanic right away, not in a few weeks or months. It could save you a pile of money, or having a serious accident, in cases like this.”

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Justin Pritchard
Justin Pritchard is a native of Windsor, Ontario – though he’s called Sudbury his home for the past 20 years. Justin is a full-time auto writer, consultant and presenter of EastLink TV’s AutoPilot. His work can be seen weekly in numerous outlets across the country. When not writing about the latest new models and industry trends, you’ll probably find him fixing his 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS.
Justin Pritchard

Latest posts by Justin Pritchard (see all)

  • Keith P.

    This is a chronic problem on Honda Civics and the Acura equivalent of this generation. I have seen several fail in this exact way. Interestingly, all have been on the left side.

  • allen

    Either the photo is staged or the Pirelli Sotozeros were installed incorrectly: the hatch tread is supposed to be on the inside (linear tread outside)… maybe that contributed to excessive ball joint wear?

  • http://helpmelance.ca Lance Wakewich

    The mechanic/shop who did the saftey should have been fined or made to pay for the repairs.

  • zach

    same here. Every one Ive seen fail too was left.

  • Steve Tarasenko

    the picture of the control arm does not show the result of a failure due to wear. when a ball joint gets loose typically its the socket thats worn out, and the pin gets loose, this is what causes play in the suspension and a tech is looking for. the picture clearly shows a SHEARED OFF ball joint pin. the cause of this could be improper assembly, however more than likely its caused by an impact, either hitting a pot hole or a curb. damage like this isnt typically something a tech will see in an inspection. add to it that car is lowered. i have nothing against a properly lowered car (both my cars are lowered) however typically lowering a car will result in stiffer suspension, and that will increase the stress on everything suspension related. proper care needs to be taken with a lowered car. this article seems like trying to blame the tech for something they may not have done. its called “ever since” and not a day goes by where i dont get blamed for something on a customers car. “ever since you fixed my transmission my heater doesnt work” for example

  • Taxario_resident

    I sell parts at a jobber.. upper right control arm/ball joint all the time too !

  • Vannns

    ^ yes, respect.

  • Vladimir Poutine

    Lada NOT be do this ! Made from GOOD Russian Steel !

  • tjay

    Why should he, From the picture a part broke, without an accurate crystal ball this would be impossible to detect on a safety inspection. Also safety inspections in Manitoba are good for a year ( I do not know about other provinces) So a car that has had an inspection can make a lot of miles in a year, and what was safe a year ago is unsafe a year later.
    from the story it appear that Mr Labrie is making a lot of assumptions or is not telling us the whole story.

    I have over 40 years of experience as an auto mechanic, and I don’t mean as a back yarder or some one who reads on the internet and thinks they are an expert just because they are good friends with google.

    Any time I have seen a broken ball joint stud, it has not been from wear, but from a crash, improperly installed part or wrong part installed not fitting proper.

    It would not be the first time I have had a customer lie and say it just fell apart

  • Darren MacDonald

    I guess Justin Pritchard should be asking more than one mechanic for his opinion.

  • Kevin Y

    Really? Your 4 decades of experience didn’t teach you how to inspect honda lower ball joints? There’s no way a popped ball joint would have passed inspection 2 weeks prior to it failing. A honda load carrying lower ball joint develops play long before it reaches a failure point. Specifications call for zero play so these ball joints would have failed the inspection. I’ve only got 25% of the experience you do though so what do I know?

  • tjay

    Some thing my experience has taught me is, Things are not always as they first appear.

    From the picture, I took it that the stud was broken, that would not be picked up on a safety inspection( unless of course it was broken at the time of safety)
    If the ball came out of the socket then that could be due to wear or it is possible it was torn out of the socket by an impact, with out a complete and close up inspection of the actual ball joint you could be blaming an innocent inspector.

    Also I have read the story several times. I am unable to see where the inspection was done in the previous couple of weeks. All I see is the customer had owned the car for 2 weeks. In my province the inspection can be up to a year oid and still valid. In my area the vehicle could have anywhere from 1 to 100,000 km or more in a year. Lots of wear can happen in that amount of time

    There is away to much uncalled for blame in the auto trade from the unknowing and inexperienced or people with an agenda

  • Dave V

    The older generation civics of this body style are known to shear lower ball joints. I owned a 1996 civic si coupe which had annual inspections. The driver side lower ball joint sheared off driving 120 km/hr. I am a automotive mechanic and inspected the front suspension reguallarly (every 2-3 months). The balljoint had no movement and no noise before the accident. The ball of the ball joint ceased and caused this. So if your driving an older civic with original ball joints be aware.

  • http://www.braintarts.wordpress.com/ MichaelL65

    To be fair, Honda makes great lawnmowers…

  • Rob Owsianyk

    It has nothing to do with the quality of the car every car can and will fail, if not properly maintained. The biggest problem is shops try to sell you as much work as they can and a lot of times the most needed work goes undone for more expensive unnecessary work.