Are Vehicle Inspections Really About Safety?

The world of automotive regulations is quite complicated. For instance, each state makes and maintains its own regulations for auto insurance, license requirements, and vehicle requirements, but not every rule directly translates to improved safety for drivers. Take vehicle inspections — they’re intended to keep drivers, passengers, roads, and the environment safe. So why do just some states legally require them, and do they actually make us safer?

junkyard of cars

State Inspections by the Numbers

The following states require a periodic inspection by a licensed inspection station: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia, plus Washington, DC. Alabama and Maryland only require an inspection when a vehicle is sold.

We compared insurance rates in these states to the national average and found that requiring an inspection doesn’t lead to lower insurance rates. From the above list, 10 states have an average insurance rate that is more than $100 below the national average, eight have an average insurance rate that is more than $100 above the average insurance rate, and four have one that is within $100 of the national average.

We also looked at deaths from crashes in states requiring inspections. Each state reports how many deaths from fatal motor vehicle crashes it has each year, so we compared how many states had fewer than the national median of 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people each year and how many states had more than the median number of deaths (as reported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). In 2014 (the last year for which data was available), of the states requiring vehicle safety inspections, 12 states plus the District of Columbia had fewer than the national median of crash deaths and seven had more deaths than the national average.

So, there isn’t a clear-cut correlation here between requiring a safety inspection and fewer deaths or lower insurance rates.

DE, HI, IL, LA, ME, MA, MS, MO, NH, NJ, NY, NC, PA, RI, TX, UT, VT, VA, WV + DC require inspections.

What Vehicle Safety Inspections Assess

What a vehicle safety inspection entails varies by state, but here are a few specific examples:

In New York State, vehicle inspectors of cars and light trucks check out:

  • Seat belts
  • Brakes
  • Steering, front-end assembly, suspension, chassis, frame and wheel fasteners
  • Tires (excluding the spare)
  • Lights
  • Windshield and other glass
  • Windshield wipers and blades
  • Horn
  • Mirrors
  • Fuel leaks

In Louisiana, an inspection costs between $10 and $18 (with no additional tax), and vehicle inspectors ensure the following operate correctly and don’t present a safety hazard:

  • Brakes
  • Speedometer/Odometer
  • Mirrors, outside and inside rearview
  • Seat belts
  • Steering mechanism
  • Floor pan – No holes or rusted area are allowed in the passenger compartment
  • Parking brakes
  • Horn
  • Interior and exterior lights (including license plate lamp
  • Windshield wipers and washers
  • Windshields (interestingly, small amounts of damage is permitted—see the link for details) and other windows
  • Body and sheet metal
  • Fenders
  • Bumpers
  • Doors and windows
  • Hood latch
  • Wheels and tires
  • Suspension and shock absorbers
  • Exhaust system

 old rusty jaguar car

What Could Happen If You Don’t Get Your Car Inspected?

For drivers in states that require inspections, complying with the rules essentially amounts to avoiding fines and ensuring you’re driving legally. In order to buy, sell, or register your vehicle in these states, you’ll need to have an up-to-date inspection. Next, not having an up-to-date inspection almost guarantees you’ll get a ticket: if you’re stopped by law enforcement for any type of moving violation (or you’re in a wreck), they can give you a ticket for lapsed inspection. Also, if you park on the street and or travel anywhere even remotely urban where police often cruise and traffic cops issue parking fines, a lapsed inspection is likely to earn you a hefty fine almost immediately after your current inspection expires, and another one each day until you update your inspection. In many states, vehicle inspection stickers displayed on the windshield vary in color from year to year, making it quite easy for a police officer to spot a lapsed inspection even from a distance.

The argument for periodic vehicle inspections from governmental agencies and licensed mechanics conducting inspections is often similar to that of Bo Malacki, mechanic and owner of an auto shop in Pennsylvania. “People don’t do anything until they have to. Without state inspections, you’d have junk on the road,” Malacki told Trib Live. Inspections save drivers from themselves and help keep people safe, those in favor of vehicle safety inspections argue.

Why Some States Do Not Require Vehicle Safety Inspections

While all of the above makes logical sense—state-run vehicle inspections ensure each car registered in the state meets certain minimum requirements for both operation and physical condition of the vehicle—the majority of states don’t have such regulations in place. Why not?

Plainly, if something isn’t a law in a state, it means the majority of lawmakers and voters didn’t think it was necessary for their safety and wellbeing. If lawmakers in states that require periodic inspections believe they keep everyone on the road safer, it stands to reason that lawmakers in states not requiring them don’t think they keep their constituents safer.

The flip side of the debate is that inspections are a costly waste of time that essentially amount to revenue for the state and business for the inspectors. In Pennsylvania, for instance, drivers spend over $600 million each year fulfilling the annual inspection requirements, reports Trib Live. State Senator John Wozniak believes vehicle inspections make people feel safer but doesn’t think they need to happen every year. He has actually introduced legislation meant to space them farther apart, but has been unsuccessful so far. Wozniak has said that crash rates don’t differ much in states with periodic inspections as compared to states without inspections: “One reason fatality rates don’t correlate with safety inspections is that most accidents don’t involve mechanical failure, according to several studies.”

A review of several studies (here, here, and here) by KVUE, a local affiliate of ABC in Texas, which examined the impact of periodic inspections on driver safety found no statistically significant effect of mandatory inspections on fatalities or injuries. Texas State Sen. Don Huffines told KVUE state inspections are, “about keeping inspection stations in business and it’s about getting the state of Texas more revenue.”

'The programs are antiquated and inadequate... It's more of a tax revenue generator.'

So why do some states enforce frequent inspections while others never require them?

Joseph Henmueller, president of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association, explained to Trib Live that many inspections conducted today were written for cars built in the 1970s, and few have been updated. He says,“ ‘It’s a very good thing for any state to have a robust safety inspection,’ he said. “The problem is that … the programs are antiquated and inadequate. So even the states that have inspections are giving a false sense of security. It’s more of a tax revenue-generator.”

Another theory? A map of periodic inspection requirement viewed alongside a map of red and blue states shows a rough similarity: in very general terms, classically blue states tend to require periodic inspections, while classically red states do not (with several outliers, of course, like Texas).

auto repair tire

Evidence for Ineffective Inspections: Texas Edition

Austin’s KVUE team recently conducted a four-part investigative series titled, “Inspecting the Inspectors,” in which they examined how effective state inspections are at keeping drivers safe, as well as how well the system is currently working. They found evidence of improperly performed inspections, corruption and misuse of funds.

“Over the past three years, law enforcement busted at least 126 inspection shops after it found inspectors illegally passing vehicles for cash,” KVUE reported. Investigators also found that shops offering state-licensed inspections were more likely to fail vehicles if they sold the parts to fix the problem–not damning evidence in and of itself, but it bolsters the idea that state inspections benefit more than just drivers on the road. Repair shops benefit, too, and not just from selling replacement parts. KVUE reported on one garage owner who conducted 2,813 inspections over a three-year period and didn’t fail a single vehicle. The garage owner made $40 per inspection.

Money from state inspections and emissions tests is meant to go certain places (where, precisely, differs by state and city). In Texas, funds from emissions tests during inspections are meant to go to the Low Income Repair and Replacement Assistant Program (LIRAP), which helps low-income drivers fix their vehicles so they can meet minimum state requirements, says KVUE. However KVUE found that only 28 percent of collected funds actually went to drivers in need, while the rest, “went back into the state’s general fund.” Again, no one piece of evidence proves inspections are a sham or that they are useless, but just as with missing paperwork and 100 percent pass rates, it points to a bigger story of what inspections actually do, which in many cases, seems to be providing funding to the state.

  • Bill Wilson

    Many years ago, I was on a state task force considering expanding vehicle inspections beyond a couple of cities to the entire state. The cost to consumers would have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars. There was pretty much no evidence at the time that these inspection services impacted loss experience even minutely. In fact, the biggest single factor in highway and interstate accidents was tire debris from recapped tires. A law prohibiting recaps would have been much more effective than an inspection program. Fortunately, the legislature followed the task force’s recommendation to not expand inspection services statewide.