Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Car mods look, sound nice but can be illegal

Organization working to create uniform code across the country

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AFTER spending thousands of dollars tuning a stock vehicle for more power and performance, the last thing you want is to find out the modifications you made are unsafe, and if noticed by a police officer, likely to cost you dearly. If you're planning on buying new rims and tires, lowering the suspension, or replacing the intake and exhaust, make sure you do so within the confines of the law.

In May 2002, the Police and Community Educating Racers (PACER) program was launched in Ontario. This non-profit organization works with Canada's police forces (they've recently opened up shop in B.C. and are making plans to expand across Canada) to raise awareness of illegal street racing and aggressive driving behaviour. Aside from creating a uniform code concerning vehicle modifications, PACER also looks to open lines of communication between automotive enthusiasts and the police.

To help performance enthusiasts avoid getting into trouble with the law, PACER CEO Mathew John suggests keeping within the following guidelines:

Wheels and suspension

Make sure your new wheels and tires aren't rubbing the body of the car. "When a police officer pulls you over and looks at your suspension, he will first look at it with the wheel facing forward to see if the wheel is making contact with the wheel well," explains John. "He will use a credit card or a similar piece of plastic to see if there is enough clearance. If that passes, then he'll ask the driver to turn the wheel all the way to the left, and then to the right, to see if there's any evidence of contact."

Expect the officer to make a visual inspection of the inside of your wheel well for evidence that the tire may be making contact with the body while the vehicle is in motion -- rub marks at the top of the shock tower or on the plastic in the wheel well.

"If the wheels are making contact with the body, the police will automatically take the plates off the vehicle if they deem it unsafe," warns John. "You'll also get a ticket."

To avoid problems, ask a credible tire and wheel retailer for advice before making a purchase. They can determine if the offset is right for your vehicle. Tell them what car you have, and they'll tell you the maximum size of tire and wheel combination you can use. Keep in mind, however, if the vehicle has been lowered the tires may begin rubbing earlier than expected.

"We'll also look at whether any part of the vehicle is likely to touch the ground in the event of a flat tire," adds Const. Fred Bottrell, with the Vehicle Inspection Unit of the Winnipeg police. "We can actually take a few measurements of your vehicle to determine if that's a problem."

To determine if your suspension is too low to be legal, measure the height between the bottom of the rim and the road and compare that to the distance between the lowest part of your vehicle and the road. If the latter is higher than the former, your car is likely to touch the ground if you have a flat.

Nitrous oxide

The law allows you to carry nitrous oxide in your vehicle, and even have it hooked up, ready to use at the touch of a button. You can even use it as long as doing so doesn't cause you to break the speed limit.

However, if you have nitrous oxide in your vehicle it must be fastened in with metal straps and it must have a sticker on the tank indicating that you're transporting dangerous goods. In addition, the tank (as in the case of propane) must be certified for carrying this type of explosive material. If these conditions aren't met, you could be fined.

Regardless of the legalities, transporting nitrous oxide is as unsafe -- and unwise -- as driving around with a propane tank in your trunk. "If a vehicle is involved in an accident where it catches fire for any reason whatsoever, then there's a possibility the tank can explode," warns John. "On a track application it's different because your chances of getting rear-ended are next to none. On the road, however, it's another story."


In Manitoba, police carry tint meters that measure how much light passes through a tinted window. "On the driver's and front passenger's windows you're allowed 50 per cent tint, while on the back windows it's 35 per cent," explains Bottrell. That means 50 per cent of the light has to pass through the front side windows, while only 35 per cent of the light has to pass through any of the rear windows. Front windows are not allowed to have any tint whatsoever, unless the vehicle comes from the factory with a level of tint on it already.

In Manitoba, if your windows are tinted beyond legal limits, the law can go after the owner of the vehicle as well as the company that did the tinting.

Window decals

No decals -- including solid letters, logos, or borders -- are allowed on the front windshield whatsoever.


A muffler that doesn't muffle enough noise can be deemed as creating "unnecessary noise." Says John: "If the aftermarket exhaust makes more noise than the OEM exhaust, that's called unnecessary noise."

However, any aftermarket exhaust with DOT or SAE approval is safe to use, since you can rest assured that it was manufactured with compliance with noise bylaws in mind.

A straight exhaust, meaning one where the baffles inside the muffler permit a straight flow or air from one end to the other, is illegal. The air must be channelled through a series of chambers that are partitioned by baffles. These chambers force the noise to recirculate throughout the muffler so that by the time it exits, it's quiet.

If the officer deems the exhaust to be louder than ambient noise, he'll ticket you.

Spoilers and hood scoops

A spoiler "has to afford a clear view to the rear of the vehicle." A police officer will determine if your spoiler is too large and obstructs your ability to see enough of what's in your rearview mirror.

To determine whether your hood scoop is legal, draw an imaginary horizontal line from the bottom of your front windshield and add two vertical inches to that line -- that's the maximum legal height of a hood scoop.


Anything that limits the amount of light (plastic cover, tint, etc.) given off by either the front or rear lights can result in a ticket.

If you're adding aftermarket High Intensity Discharge lights, make sure they have DOT approval. DOT assures the user that the bulb is safe to use, and that it's not emitting either too much or too little light for North American standards. The glare from a bulb that's too strong, for example, could cause other drivers to have trouble seeing properly.

"A lot of stuff comes from the Orient without DOT approval," warns John, "and is illegal."

If you have an affinity for multicoloured lights, fight the urge to decorate your vehicle with them. "Only amber and clear lights to the front, and amber and red to the rear are allowed," explains Bottrell. Replacing turn signal lights with blue bulbs, adding strobes or flashing lights that dance to the beat of your music, and installing neon below the vehicle or around the licence plate -- it's all prohibited.

Air intake

Any aftermarket intake system must be bolted in securely and have the PCV valve attached. Some people disconnect the PCV valve and put on a small filter instead. That can result in a fine.

Engine swap

"Make sure you have documentation proving that you own the new engine, and remember to register it with the Ministry," says John. "The documentation must show that the new engine is rightfully yours and belongs in your vehicle."

* * *

Far be it for us to preach, but if you are planning to modify your car, it's helpful to know what is legal and what's not. If you want to avoid problems, make sure all your mods are made within the guidelines of the law.

And if you do have a mod that's questionable, don't give an officer any reason to pull you over and take a closer look at where you spent all your money. "You have to give the officer a reason to pull you over -- loud noise, speed, squealing of tires, heavy acceleration, or racing from a red light," concludes John. "Once they pull you over, they'll start looking at how far you've lowered the vehicle, the darkness of your tint, etc."

If you're seriously considering making modifications to your vehicle, and want to make sure it's done safely and legally, a booklet on the subject is available from Winnipeg police or Driver and Vehicle Licensing at 1075 Portage Ave.

Unsafe modifications

1. Use of nitrous oxide

-- Nitrous oxide is a highly combustible gas. If a vehicle carrying nitrous is involved in an accident it could cause an explosion resulting in serious injury or death.

2. Cut Springs

-- Cutting or altering the springs that came as original equipment on a vehicle is not recommended. A vehicle with cut springs will have less rebound in its suspension, which can result in an accident when driving over potholes, or other irregularities in the road surface.

3. Non-approved aftermarket products

-- Aftermarket products that are not approved for road use can lead to serious accidents. There are specific reasons why safety standards are implemented for parts that are used on public roads.

4. Oversized rims and tires

-- Oversized rims are extremely attractive, but sometimes can be installed incorrectly. Proper installation will prevent the rim from dismounting while the vehicle is in motion. Depending on the size of the rim, clearance levels must be within exact tolerances in order to avoid contact between the tires and the body of the vehicle.

5. Loud sound and stereo systems

-- Sound systems are nice to have as long as they are not a distraction to the driver. When played loudly, these systems pose a safety hazard, as the driver is unable to hear anything other than the music coming from the stereo. The driver would be unable to hear the siren of an emergency vehicle, an oncoming train, other passenger vehicles, etc...

6. Catalytic converters

-- This common modification results in severe environmental issues. When the catalytic converter is removed, it increases a vehicle's horsepower. However, it is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect, which in turn affects the air we breathe.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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