For Everyone's Benefit

The Utah state legislature is debating eliminating safety inspection for privately owned passenger vehicles. So is the state of Missouri. The governor of Hawaii is studying a similar bill, while the District of Columbia eliminated safety inspection of private vehicles in 2009.

Today, 19 states require safety inspection for private passenger vehicles: annually in 13 states, biannually in two and the rest are irregular, usually when the title is transferred. Some inspections are quite comprehensive, while others are … not.

The political argument against safety inspection is, as stated by Utah State Rep. John Dougall, “There is nothing that shows that it makes our roads safer.” In a panel discussion several years ago I learned that even though police, DMV administrators and insurance companies have all tried to promote safety inspection programs, no one has been able to generate statistics showing that they improve highway safety. Without solid statistics to back them up, elected officials don’t want to spend money on inspection programs or force their constituents to spend money on car repair.

Pennsylvania has required safety inspection since 1936, and it’s one of the most comprehensive. For residents it’s just a fact of life, and there’s never been any serious consumer pressure to end the program. But having been a PA inspection mechanic, I saw first-hand the two main objections I hear today from people who oppose it: government interference in our business, and dishonest inspectors taking advantage of captive customers. I cannot agree with these objections.

Pennsylvania shop owners tell me that dealing with the DMV is not a big deal. The shop must meet certain criteria and specific tools and equipment must be on-hand, and techs must pass a test to get an inspection license. None of this is hard or too expensive to recover (we’re discussing SAFETY inspection, not emissions inspection). While the state-set price doesn’t cover the shop’s real cost, there are very few shops in PA that don’t have an inspection license because customers expect “their” shop to inspect their car. For shops in Pennsylvania, state inspection is just a normal part of business.

As to the second objection: Safety inspection generates a lot of work, real work, and anyone reading this knows there’s more than enough honest work for capable shops to succeed in this business. Dishonest shops don’t need an inspection program to abuse customers. In fact, it’s more common that they’ll issue stickers to vehicles that shouldn’t pass inspection.

The day I moved to another state, I saw a car on the highway with bald tires, sagging rear springs, no brake lights, a rope holding the hood down and a driver constantly working the steering wheel just to keep the car in its lane. It was a frightening and unforgettable sight, and I think it’s reasonable to expect the state to keep dangerous cars like that off the road.