Texas is trying to get rid of mandatory vehicle inspections. Should everyone?

The Texas branch of Watchdog.org has a good study out this week which looks at the question of state mandated vehicle safety inspections and if they are actually worth the money that is flushed into them every year. The Lone Star State has been examining the question for a while now and their conclusions seem fairly obvious since this is the second time they’ve tried to do away with them. As it turns out, there’s a lot of money moving around but no real benefits in terms of safety and injuries or fatalities is evident.

The state of Texas has no idea if its $275 million vehicle inspection program is doing what it is supposed to do, or ever has as far as anyone can tell.

Last year Texas inspectors checked 19 million passenger cars. That’s more than 50,000 safety and emissions inspection trips seven days a week, and more than nine million hours spent by vehicle owners complying, according to Department of Public Safety figures.

The program returns just $125 million of the $275 million generated in fees back to the state.

But there has not been a single audit or study by the DPS chief auditor’s office or the state auditor to determine if vehicle inspections have made Texans safer or allowed them to breathe easier.

For those of you who are close to my age bracket or above, you probably remember when vehicle inspections were pretty much ubiquitous across the land. These days there are thirteen states left which require them: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Maine, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Since I live in New York we still get to participate in this annual ritual and I’ve generally been on the fence about it.

I’ve always thought there was at least something of an argument to be made in favor of inspections, providing they were actually cutting down on accidents and saving lives. People with faulty brakes or bald tires who are either too dim to realize it or too poor to afford to do the maintenance shouldn’t be driving those cars until they are up to snuff. But with modern automotive technology, brakes tend to squeal outrageously when you wear them down to the warning plates. As for the tires… as I said, there may be something to be said for inspections.

But there have always been negatives associated with the program. When the system was less sophisticated and more paper based back in the bad old days, corruption was rampant. Garage owners would often keep a stack of stickers on hand and sell them to their friends without needing to pass an inspection or to get a dodgy car to legal status at a profit. Even when the automated emission testing machines were first introduced, I saw mechanics sticking the sensor probe into the tailpipe of a new car while “testing” the friend’s car. (That doesn’t work anymore, but you could easily do it in the seventies.)

It was also a big revenue generator for the state, as well as being a guaranteed source of extra income for garages which were lucky enough (or well connected enough) to have a state license to conduct inspections. And what were we getting in return for all of this? As the linked study indicates… not much. Accidents, injuries and fatalities have continued to fall from their high points in the seventies in states where inspections were eliminated. People seem to generally have enough common sense (or at least a sense of self preservation) to keep their vehicles mostly in order. Police could still issue tickets to drivers with cars and trucks which are obviously unsafe, reminding everyone else to stay on top of their maintenance. Perhaps Texas is on to something here and the last baker’s dozen of states should just get rid of this program once and for all.