Braking the Tag

A friend was rejoicing that when she went to get a New Orleans brake tag she was given the option of getting a tag for two years rather than one. Two years cost more but sure make life more convenient.

That reminded me about how much the act of getting a brake tag has changed, especially in Orleans Parish, where issuing tags was once a city-run, no-nonsense operation. By comparison tags are now jobbed out to various car places where the process is less demanding. (At the places where I’ve gone the last two times, my inspection had been completed before I could count all the tattoos on the inspector and his cashier girlfriend.)

In earlier days most of the inspecting was done at the city’s East Bank station just off of Jeff Davis Boulevard, near Parkway Bakery. There was invariably a long line as the cars moved slowly toward the center of the facility where the inspecting was done. As your time drew near an inspector carrying a clipboard approached the driver’s side for vital information. He then scraped off the old sticker.

Another inspector checked the horns, lights and wipers. Than came the big moment, the actual testing of the bakes. We were instructed to drive slowly over a metal plate and than at his command to jam the brakes as quickly as possible. (“That always makes me nervous,” my mom used to complain.) Nearby was a gadget that measured the suddenness of the stop. There were valves, which if they popped high enough meant that the brakes were good. The less the pop, the weaker the brakes.

If it all went well you paid the fee, a new sticker was slapped on and you drove away. If there was a problem you were given a temporary tag. That meant that after getting the problem fixed you had to come back and do it all over again.

And then, for many years tags were only valid for six months. We had to go through the ordeal twice a year. Then it was extended to annually. The big change, though, came in 2002 during the early Ray Nagin administration, in what was seen as a government efficiency reform. The brake tag station was closed and private enterprise took over.

It may be that cars are made better now with fewer needs for inspection, or that government has higher priority spending demands. The empty shell of the old Motor Vehicle Inspection station still stands. A plaque proudly reminds us that the facility was restored in 1999, though its active life after that wasn’t long. Some of the signage still stands. The ones I remember most warned that the inspectors could not be offered tips, and that the facility director’s name was Frank J. Lopiccolo Jr. In case we forgot his name, it was also on the back of the brake tag. (Impishly I wondered about being stopped by a policeman for driving with an expired brake tag. Could I plea, “But Mr. Lopiccolo said I could?”)

If you car is less than 10 years old, it can qualify for the two-year sticker. The world of brake tags is changing faster than a screeching car. The standard square brake tag is now being replaced by a circular one.

There was a rainstorm as I drove back to the office from exploring the old inspection facility. I didn’t notice a large puddle that had formed on the street that caused a spray to cascade from both sides of the vehicle. Having cleared the puddle I instinctively tested my brakes to be sure the water didn’t affect them. They worked fine. That might have been the most important test of all – and there was no line.



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