Editorial: Safety checks have benefits

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2011

As legislators debate ditching North Carolinaís vehicle safety inspection program, hereís a trend to keep in mind:
The average age of passenger vehicles on U.S. highways has been steadily increasing and is now 10.6 years old, according to R.L. Polk & Co., an automotive consulting firm. For a variety of mechanical and financial reasons ó more durable autos, less durable household incomes ó Americans are keeping their cars longer. Although the ěcash for clunkersî program took several million older gas guzzlers off the roads, drivers in general are running up the miles, rather than running to trade in on a new vehicle every few years.
The drive to end the safety inspections follows a 2008 study by the Legislatureís Program Evaluation Division that questioned the effectiveness of the safety program. The study found that accident data didnít support the argument that inspections reduced accidents. It also found inconsistencies in the quality of inspections and state oversight. Furthermore, it said the state and consumers may not be getting their moneyís worth from the $141 million spent annually on the safety inspections and the separate emissions inspections required in about half of North Carolinaís counties, including Rowan.
Thatís a serious indictment, and it has spurred improvements in the inspection program, according to state DMV officials who say theyíve beefed up oversight. Others who support maintaining the safety inspections include the N.C. Highway Patrol, AAA Carolinas and a trade group representing garage owners. While repair shops may gain some business via the inspections, theyíve also invested money and time in equipment and training.
North Carolina is among 19 states that require some form of periodic safety inspection. It isnít alone in reconsidering its program. The District of Columbia and New Jersey recently discontinued their safety inspections. Such actions are likely to be popular among motorists who donít like the hassle or expense of the safety checks, which cost $13.60 (or $30 when combined with the emissions test). Before jettisoning the program, however, N.C. lawmakers should consider the 1 million vehicles that had safety violations in 2010. Many infractions were easily remedied for modest cost, requiring only wiper blades or replacement bulbs. But some vehicles had more serious issues such as bald tires or worn steering components.
With improvements in automotive safety and reliabililty, it may make sense to relax inspection requirements for newer vehicles. But components such as brakes, tires and tie-rod ends eventually fail, and some drivers may be oblivious to problems until a safety check reveals them. Legislators should proceed with caution.