Let’s repeal the vehicle safety inspection law

The following op-ed, written by our policy analyst Audrey Mortenseon, was published this week in the Deseret News.

The Cato Institute’s recent ranking of state laws puts Utah in the top ten for least burdensome regulatory policies. Out of those ten states, however, Utah is the only one that still mandates vehicle safety inspections.

Only 15 other states mandate vehicle safety inspections — most of them liberal eastern states — and these are ranked among the lowest in the nation for imposing the heaviest regulatory burdens. Utah should join all the other western states by repealing this program, saving Utah drivers a combined $25 million per year.

The Government Accountability Office recently reviewed a collection of studies on the effectiveness of vehicle safety inspections and found there is no conclusive evidence that indicates these programs reduce mechanical-error car accidents. Lacking any justification, the mandate should therefore be eliminated.

The problem with vehicle safety inspections is fourfold. First, proponents of the mandate can provide no valid data to demonstrate that mechanical failures are a major contributing factor in car accidents. Studies assessing this relationship have had poor samples, conflicting results, and fail to show a causal relationship between inspections and accident prevention.

Second, inspections administered based on the age of the car are an inaccurate way to measure a car’s usage, and therefore safety. A vehicle rarely driven does not need a vehicle safety inspection, while a vehicle driven three times the annual average may experience mechanical errors more quickly. There is no data to indicate that periodic inspections prevent Utah drivers from driving an unsafe vehicle.

Third, the cost of the inspections program substantially outweighs the potential benefits. Issues such as cracked glass, a burned out license plate, or windows with too much tint do not justify requiring Utah drivers to collectively spend millions of dollars in inspections, given that they do not prevent mechanical-error accidents.

Fourth, mandatory inspections can alter the behavior of drivers so as to negate any benefit mandated inspections might otherwise produce. A study of something known as the Peltzman Effect, using NASCAR drivers, found that, “drivers drive more recklessly as the probability of driver injury has fallen.” In other words, the more a person thinks their care is safe, the more reckless they may drive.

In 2013, the Utah Department of Public Safety found that speeding was the highest contributing factor in car crash fatalities (40 percent of the total; 87 deaths), while mechanical errors were very minimal (3.8 percent of the total; two deaths). As such, the state’s efforts would better be focused on increased public education about safe driving habits and enforcement against vehicles that are believed to be unsafe.

In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed House Bill 298, which changed the frequency of vehicle safety inspections from every two years to every four years if a car is under ten years old. This was a compromise from the original bill after fierce opposition from the Utah Department of Public Safety pushed to keep the vehicle safety inspections as they were.

The Utah Highway Patrol argued that their mission to keep the roads safe would be undermined if the safety inspection program was eliminated. Then-Representative John Dougall, the sponsor of the bill, responded, “Getting more troopers on the road is a more effective use of those dollars than overseeing this program,” adding that drivers, and not cars themselves, are the risk factor they should focus on.

Earlier this year, a bill aiming to eliminate safety inspections altogether failed to even make it out of committee, due in part to heavy lobbying by auto shops and their many workers, who argued that repeal of the program would hurt their business — an argument based in protectionism, not prudent public policy.

The alleged purpose of mandatory vehicle safety inspections is not to give a financial advantage to auto shops, but to provide a method of keeping Utah’s roads safe. Because no evidence confirms that the program actually produces this result, it should be eliminated.

While well intentioned, vehicle safety inspections do not achieve the goal of public safety. The cost of vehicle safety inspections to Utah drivers grossly outweighs the intended benefits. Lets eliminate this burden on Utah drivers.