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Editorial: Inspecting the inspectors

Critics of North Carolinaís vehicle inspection system have long maintained it needs a diligent check under the hood. Now, after an investigation by newspapers in Raleigh and Charlotte highlighted problems, Gov. Beverly Perdue has ordered a state review of the inspection program.
What took so long?
Three years ago, the N.C. legislatureís watchdog agency ó the N.C. Program Evaluation Division ó took a close look and found that inspectors performed inconsistent work with inadequate state enforcement (a conclusion reinforced by the two newspapersí findings). The evaluation agency recommended eliminating safety inspections or exempting newer cars from safety and emissions tests because they rarely fail. Yet the divisionís recommendations have languished. In the past legislative session, a proposal to dismantle the program never made it out of a committee. It was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, who owns two Jacksonville car dealerships and is part owner of another. (Brown has subsequently said he will route future legislation to another committee to avoid any potential conflicts.)
The auto inspection program needs a thorough review, but some may question whether the Department of Motor Vehicles, which oversees the inspection system, is the right agency to do it. Whatever problems exist have occurred under its supervision, which, in effect, means it will be critiquing its own performance as well as that of inspection stations. Motorists already skeptical about the system need to have assurances that any review will be rigorous, comprehensive and unflinching in its proposals for reform.
Having said that, there shouldnít be a rush to judgment. While many states have dismantled their inspection programs, highway safety should be the foremost consideration. Both the N.C. Highway Patrol and AAA Carolinas say that a vehicle inspection program can help keep poorly maintained cars off the roads ó providing itís managed fairly and competently. Also, itís important to draw a distinction between the safety inspections and the separate emissions checks required of 1996 and newer cars in many counties (including Rowan), which are an important part of the stateís effort to improve air quality and meet federal air quality regulations.
Itís unfortunate that unethical or sloppy repair shops have cast doubt on the program as a whole. The reverse side of that are the garages and repair shops that have kept customers from driving away with worn-out tires or brakes, leaky exhaust systems, malfunctioning lights or other hazardous defects. Done right, inspections can alert motorists to problems and help keep clunkers off the road. To restore trust in the system, the state needs to diagnose inspection deficiencies and make needed repairs.

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