A new report has found that there is little or no evidence that North Carolina’s auto safety inspection program is effective and it’s difficult to gauge whether the auto emissions program does any good for the environment.
The report by the state’s Program Evaluation Division suggests that given improvements in seat belts, air bags and other safety features and the fact that only a small percentage of cars fail the tests, a safety inspection may no longer make sense. It recommends that lawmakers reevaluate both programs and either repeal the safety inspection program or at least exempt newer vehicles.
The report also criticizes state oversight of the programs.
The Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee asked the Program Evaluation Division to study the programs.
North Carolinians face two types of inspections: a safety inspection of various mechanical systems required by state law in all 100 counties for vehicles less than 35 years old; and a diagnostic emissions inspection to ensure proper functioning of pollution controls for all 1996 and newer model year vehicles. Only vehicles registered in 48 counties are subject to the emissions inspection.
North Carolinians spend $141 million annually on inspections. It costs the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the Division of Air Quality $40.8 million to administer both inspection programs.
Out of the state’s total 6.3 million inspections, 1.9 million are safety-only and 4.4 million are emissions inspections.
Failed inspections accounted for only 5 percent of all inspections overall. Vehicles failing the safety inspection were most likely to have defective tires (26%), stoplights (20%), windshield wipers (20%), license plate lights (15%) or steering mechanisms (14%), according to the report.
Among the 33 states with an emissions inspection program, 21 states exempt at least current model year vehicles from inspection; 10 states exempt at least vehicles from the three newest model years. North Carolina only exempts current model year vehicles from its inspection programs.
The researchers looked at whether the safety and emissions inspection programs are identifying mechanical defects and requiring their repair to keep unsafe cars from operating on North Carolina roadways, thereby reducing loss of life and property damage; and controlling the pollutants from mobile source emissions.
North Carolina’s crash data from the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) shows the number of cases in which a vehicle’s mechanical condition may have contributed to an accident was only 1 percent of all crashes statewide.
“Furthermore, because law enforcement personnel are not mechanics and receive a minimal amount of training in compiling and reporting accident data, it is unlikely a true assessment of how many accidents result from mechanical defects is possible,” the report says.
As for the emissions program, the researchers did find that in 2007—a year marked by severe drought and record-breaking heat— North Carolina violated ozone level on 66 days, compared to 101 “bad ozone” days a decade ago. However, the report says it is “not clear how much of the improvement can be attributed to the mobile emissions inspection program.”
The report cites a lack of thoroughness and uniformity in current auto inspections from inspection state to inspection station. While a complete inspection should take between 15 and 30 minutes, the researchers found, on average, inspections fail to meet this standard and there is “a wide fluctuation in inspection duration.”
“Given the average inspection lasted between five and six minutes, it is questionable how thorough an inspection the average consumer is receiving,” the report says.
The auditors found that technicians cheated on the inspections, sometimes omitting several required steps. During one of the observations, the technician told the customer that even if there was something wrong with the customer’s vehicle, he would still pass it because this customer is a “regular.”
Older vehicles are more likely to fail safety and emissions inspections. For safety inspections, vehicles from model year 1981 to 2001 had a higher failure rate than the overall safety failure rate (3.3%), whereas vehicles from model year 2002 and newer had lower failure rates.3
Similar results were found for emissions inspections. Vehicles from model year 1996 to 2001 had a higher failure rate than the overall emissions failure rate (2.6%), whereas failure rates for vehicles from model year 2002 to 2007 were lower.
“These findings indicate greater emphasis should be placed on monitoring the safety components and emissions functioning of older vehicles,” the report says.
The report recommends that because newer vehicles (model years 2002-2007) were found to be less likely to fail inspection, “it may be unnecessary to require them to undergo annual safety and emissions inspections.”
If the state repealed the safety inspection program, it would lose $2 million in fees. But citizens could save as much as $33 million in inspection related costs a year, according to the report.
Exempting older vehicles (three newest model years) from a safety inspection would affect about 15 percent of the state’s car owners and cost the state only $143,000 in fees. The analysis suggests that this exemption would not reduce the inspection program effectiveness.
It also recommends exempting newer vehicles from the emissions test since they are less likely to fail. If the state limited emissions inspections to older vehicles, there would be a $6.3 million reduction in fees collected.
The report alleges lax oversight of the inspections by the state DMV and urges lawmakers to require DMV to come up with a plan to improve the program.
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