From The Vault: Safety Lane produced frustration, bribery accusations, a sting and a suicide

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WATCH archived WCPO video from 1960 sting operation in the player above (Note: No audio)

CINCINNATI – Taking your car to the Cincinnati Safety Lane was like going to the dentist. You figured you had to do it, but you hated it.

The city opened the safety lane on Central Parkway in 1941 and operated it for 40 years until 1981. Residents were required to have their vehicle inspected twice a year.

Over the years, the fee rose from 50 cents to $5.

It was a pain in the dash, with long lines since the Central Parkway facility was the only one in the city. The inspection covered routine things like headlights, brakes, horns, windshield wipers and steering wheel play. Emission testing was added in 1975.

Cars that passed got a windshield sticker good for six months. If your car didn’t pass, you got a temporary sticker and 30 days to make it right.

Most people considered it a money grab  – just another way for the city to take a buck out of your pocket. So many car owners didn’t bother.  And neither did the police.

In reality, the law was unenforceable. It said even non-city residents could be ticketed if they parked more than three days in the city without a valid sticker. Who was going to check that? So police only issued tickets in tandem with parking and traffic violations, according to newspaper reports of the day.

Despite that, there were rumors that drivers bribed some inspectors to pass their vehicles if they couldn’t pass otherwise.

Cincinnati Patrolman Robert Heinlein drove Al Schottelkotte's wife's car through the Cincinnati Safety Lane.

In 1960, Al Schottelkotte, then news director at WCPO and an Enquirer columnist, said he heard accusations of bribe-taking at the Cincinnati Safety Lane and reported them to Police Chief Stanley Schrotel.

Here’s how it supposedly worked:

A driver would tell the tester, “I bet you a dollar my car won’t pass,” then leave a dollar bill on the front seat for the tester to pocket.

Police set up a sting using Schottelkotte’s wife’s car, which had flunked a previous inspection for defective headlights. A police officer in plain clothes drove it to the safety lane, said the magic words and left a marked $1 bill on the seat.

Heinlein holds $1 bill and inspection certificate from Cincinnati Safety Lane.

 

The officer said he watched the tester, 32-year-old William Nichols, pocket the dollar and, voila, the car passed inspection. Afterward, police interviewed Nichols for two hours. Nichols denied taking a bribe, said he didn’t know anything about a bribery racket, and he thought the dollar had fallen out of his pocket.

Nichols was suspended from his job - but not charged -  pending a hearing two days hence. It was a big story on WCPO that night and in the papers the next day, with the plainclothes officer posing for photos sitting behind the wheel and holding a dollar bill with a certificate that his car had passed inspection.

That’s when the story turned tragic.

By the next day, Nichols shot and killed himself in his car on the Public Landing. He left a suicide note addressed to his parents and insisted he hadn’t taken a bribe. The Enquirer reported that the note said, in part:

“I know this is a coward’s way out, but what am I to do? My job was all I had. I have so many debts. Forgive me. Love, Bill.”

Before Nichols’ suicide, the public works director said he was shocked by the bribery report. He said nobody has made any accusations of dishonesty in 20 years of operation, and he told the safety lane superintendent to follow through with an investigation.

The sergeant in charge of the police investigation said Nichols would have tested other parts of the car, but someone else would have tested the lights. The safety lane superintendent retested the lights and said he found the results inconclusive.

The acting city manager ordered the safety director to present a “full factual report” to the city manager.  

Two weeks later, the city manager issued a report pointing out that Nichols had not been charged or proved guilty. It also said:

  • Police were guilty of “hasty action” and acted “without sufficient deliberation” in investigating the bribery tip.
  • In the future, city department heads would follow explicit rules when a city employee is accused of wrongdoing, starting with a department investigation. A complaint received by police against a city worker would be turned over to the safety director and then to the department head. Only then could it be referred to police.

The city safety lane operated for another 20 years. In 1960, the city inspected more than 150,000 cars at  $1 per car.

By law, the city couldn’t divert the money to its general fund, but city council took a special vote to borrow $100,000 to pay for a new city incinerator with the promise to pay it back.

Norwood and other communities got in on the act. Norwood inspected 50,000 cars that year and diverted the money to its general fund.

Over time, drivers got wise and just stopped going to safety lanes. They went from making five-digit profits to bleeding red ink - officials said Cincinnati was losing $150,000 per year, Norwood $100,000 - and both shut down in 1981. Cincinnati had actually stopped safety inspections a year earlier but continued to do emissions testing, which it began in 1975.

Air pollution had become a big problem in the Tri-State by then, and counties in southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky were ordered to meet federal clean air standards. Between 1975 and 1981, Hamilton County reduced hydrocarbon emissions by 25 percent, according to an Enquirer report. But that wasn‘t enough, and the states of Ohio and Kentucky started mandatory E-Check operations in the Tri-State by 1995.

Drivers complained about E-Check the way they complained about the safety lane. Officials came to see it as inefficient, and it was phased out in 2005.

In 2008, the federal government  gave Ohio approval to require the Cincinnati area to use a slightly more expensive but environmentally friendly summertime gasoline. Officials said it was the most cost-efficient way to reduce smog. Meanwhile, Northern Kentucky started using reformulated gas with ethanol, which was blended to burn cleaner.

As a result, we get a lot fewer smog and air quality alerts now than we did then.

SEE other video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.

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