Sunday, April 20, 2014 · 4:57 p.m.
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Fading from view: The rise and fall of state inspections. (Photo: Staff)

It is always interesting when one travels to note how much another culture or country will humor its citizen’s traffic violations and how much those citizens are willing to tolerate in terms of risk to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists in exchange for enforcement (or lack thereof). Nowhere is this more striking than when crossing into Virginia from Tennessee on the notorious I-81 corridor or New York from Pennsylvania on I-90 as cruise control is duly engaged, Bluetooth headset's turned on, state fair-won stuffed animals removed from rear windshield and one of your five cousins in the back seat told to keep their head intermittently down.

But it raises the interesting question of how states enforce the safety of motor vehicles and what we give up in exchange. This is a rather pressing debate in the country at large and one that strikes historic nerves of federal authority versus states' rights, tradition versus progress (I love carburetors!) and real versus relative risk (the latter being notoriously hard to assess). Given the stark watermark of automobile travel’s real risk noted on highway signage across Tennessee these past two weeks as “1,000 deaths in 2012,” it is a question that isn’t going away.

In addition to the speed regulation, enforcement standards and roadway design, 19 states regulate safety both to people and the environment is physical safety inspections. Differing almost as wildly as we all do from that crazy aunt who became the performance artist in Costa Rica, these safety inspections sometimes do, or do not, include the almost ubiquitous (save 10 states) emissions inspections in compliance with the Clean Air Act’s amendments of 1990 and developed at the EPA’s NVFEL lab in Ann Arbor, Mich. (a state ironically without safety, emissions or VIN inspection regulations). Although statewide in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, but only in the sole metropolitan areas of Boise, Atlanta or Baton Rouge parishes for Idaho, Georgia and Louisiana, the variations are almost schizophrenia-inducing. But these discrepancies in emissions standards are nowhere near as confounding as the lack or presence of a safety inspection.

Though proponents argue that having a physical inspection saves very real lives (and many mechanics, technicians and shop owners support them for both fiscal and liability reasons, more on that in a minute), the data is as different as the residents of Minnesota and Louisiana. Although 31 states maintained physical safety inspections at one point, now only 19 do, and that number may drop following North Carolina and others’ claim that the crash and fatality data compiled by state, local and federal authorities and analyzed by the FHTSA and DOT does not conclusively prove any correlation between safety inspections. Pennsylvania argues the exact opposite.

Most states acknowledge that the choice to close state inspection programs has been budget contraction over the past five years, though even the state to save the most was New Jersey, saving a paltry $12 million out of its total budget. Comparatively, emissions inspections require much larger outlays by the state in expensive exhaust analysis tools and manned stations. States that still operate safety inspections without proportionally large expenditures—including Maine, Virginia, New Hampshire and Texas—are usually those that contract the inspection process out to state approved ASE-certified shops. (Now, before you cry conflict of interest here, I assure you the inspection and review process for the shop itself by the state puts anything your car has to go through to shame.)

Environment also plays a role, not just in being the unnecessary recipient of leaking fluids and blown retread lying in medians (a primary goal for physical inspections in Maine, California and Washington state is intended to reduce stormwater pollution from vehicles), but the argument can be made for environmentally base safety factors to be prioritized. Do states with more snow and ice need stiffer tire and brake specifications, while those with more benign climates need lighter restrictions? If so, California certainly has a hard sell. Do states more dependent on their pristine environment for tourism like Maine have more vested interest in restricting leaks and other climate or aesthetic hazards?

Although automotive technicians often plead for state inspections (it is indeed a regular source of maintenance and repair requests at annual and biannual inspections), they are not reimbursed proportionally for their time. Much like “warranty time” versus book, the state pays a flat reimbursement for the technicians' time at the end of the year based on how many inspections they performed, and a percentage of this cost is offset by the vehicle inspection fee: a nominal $10 to $20 dollars in most states. The larger motivation for technicians and shop owners who advocate for safety inspections is not always business but a documented record of a car found to be outside of safe operating parameters in regards to fundamental components like tires, brakes, suspension or the fuel system. In an upcoming March piece for EntrepreneurMagazine, I address the very real and day-to-day question many independent technicians face when those who can’t afford repairs present you with safety-compromising problems but without the money to fix it. In a state without a safety mandate, you often feel compelled to repair the problem at a reduced cost and more often do not have the weight of the state behind you when telling someone flatly their car is not safe to operate. In an inspection state, these individuals are not issued inspection stickers or their registration until the car is repaired to the state-mandated standard. Much like proof of insurance at registration, it tries to establish that those driving tin cans at 110 feet per second in confined spaces with thousands of others are fiscally and physically responsible for the vehicle and can afford proper maintenance.

The economic burden in this scenario is indeed on those who can likely least afford it and those driving older vehicles for a whole host of reasons (and most technicians and politicians agree on this). But without concrete component failure data and better accident-reporting criteria, real world assessment of safety inspections' effects can’t be measured. I’d love to know what my thrifty and responsible Tennessee readership thinks. Do you want one? Can we afford one? If so, what should it target, and how should it be run? Should it be incentivized, thus rewarding with insurance discounts or registration discounts for those who maintain their vehicles? I look forward to what you think; meanwhile, I need to go fix my own leaking rear main seal ....

Hannah L. Coffey is an ASE tech and divides her already-fractured time between teaching at UTC and working/writing about Subarus, Volvos and diesel Mercedes power trains. You can grill her about the latest quirk of your aging machine, what [she thinks] you should buy or whatever else strikes your fancy on her blog or by email. When in doubt, you should always seek the advice of a certified mechanic in your area. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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