Upon Closer Inspection 

There are far more effective ways to make highways safer, such as curtailing aggressive driving, enforcing drunk driving and speeding laws, and improving dangerous roads and intersections.

Yes, you read that right. A complete vehicle inspection, from driving through the garage door to slapping on the sticker, in about the time than it takes to get breakfast from a drive-through. And you don't even have to get out of the car.

If two states are attempting to accomplish the same goal, how can one be so effortless and convenient and the other such a day-killer (or days, if you have multiple cars)? The obvious answer is economy of scale. When a service station is doing oil changes, tune-ups and repairs, it's difficult to devote staff and space to perform routine inspections. But if a crew of two or three is only doing assembly-line inspections, you can run cars through like cattle.

It may also be at least partially because of how some items are inspected. Take, for example, brakes. The Virginia protocol requires that inspectors measure residual brake pads, which means putting the vehicle on a rack and removing at least two wheels. Louisiana stations use a device called a decelerometer that measures braking power. As you pull into the station, the attendant instructs you to hit the brakes, and the decelerometer passes or fails the braking system. Very simple and quick.

Another reason may just be the sheer number of items inspected. Research indicates that faulty brakes and worn tires account for almost all vehicle-related factors that contribute to accidents. Yet Virginia's inspection procedure includes 20 items with 64 indicators, many of which are of dubious value. One of my cars recently failed inspection because the driver-side power window works randomly, and didn't at the time of the inspection. I'm sure that in some unlikely scenario this might be a safety issue, but it's hard to come up with one.

In addition to inefficiency, Virginia has an inherent conflict of interest that Louisiana doesn't. Virginia gives decisions about vehicle roadworthiness to people who sell car parts and repairs for a living. Does it lessen inspectors' objectivity when they have products to move and shop time to fill? There is certainly the opportunity to take advantage of citizens who can't appeal questionable or borderline calls. As one mechanic put it when I asked him if doing inspections was financially worthwhile, "It is when we find something wrong." And, in fact, he did.

I know there are honest mechanics and repair shops out there. I just think it odd that a state that doesn't trust the private sector to sell liquor would put so much faith in its integrity with inspections, when the public safety risks are every bit as real. And by the way, which industry has the worse reputation for consumer rip-offs: alcohol sales or auto repairs?

But even if all inspections aren't completely legitimate, and even if they consume valuable time, aren't they worth it? Don't vehicle inspections prevent accidents? This is where politics meets science, and it gets murky.

When I first began researching this area, I repeatedly came across references to a 1990 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) that "conclusively proves" that vehicle inspections reduce accident rates and save lives. When I downloaded and read this report, I found something far short of conclusive proof. The GAO report was simply an agenda-driven critique of an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA had been charged by Congress to conduct research that would convince states of the benefits of inspection programs. NHTSA looked at all the available research and data, and reported that there was not conclusive proof at that time that periodic inspections reduced accident rates. According to the GAO, this was not the right answer. After trashing the NHTSA study, the GAO report stated that their officials met with NHTSA officials and NHTSA ultimately conceded that their own researchers were wrong. Come home, O sinner, come home.

So, bottom line, do inspections make a difference? Probably, but the studies that prove it have yet to be done, and the difference is probably not as significant as many believe. Vehicle malfunctions are involved in only a small percentage of accidents, in some studies as little as 1 percent to 2 percent, and inspections can't eliminate all of those because malfunctions can occur with even newly inspected vehicles. There are far more effective ways to make highways safer, such as curtailing aggressive driving, enforcing drunk driving and speeding laws, and improving dangerous roads and intersections. That's why 32 states either don't have inspection programs, or limit inspections to certain vehicle types such as commercial vehicles, or specific milestones such as title transfers.

But if we must have inspections, the General Assembly should at least try to make them more reasonable. Because malfunctions are extremely rare with newer cars, biennial inspections in the first few years of a vehicle's life would be a good start. So would single-purpose inspection stations (with decelerometers, please) — either state-operated or state-supported through business development grants. These stations not only would make the process more efficient, they would remove opportunities for fraud as well. S

Michael West is a researcher in special education and rehabilitation at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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