Pennsylvania may again consider scrapping annual vehicle inspections
Brake pads worn down to the metal rotors is a typical find when people bring in cars for annual state inspections, mechanic Bo Malacki says.
“That's the kind of thing you see all the time. It's metal-on-metal. It's a safety issue,” said Malacki, owner of Mt. Lebanon Auto Service.
“People don't do anything until they have to. Without state inspections, you'd have junk on the road, like Ohio. I've seen a lot of dangerous things brought in that people didn't realize.”
Pennsylvanians spend more than $600 million a year on mandated annual vehicle safety checks — one of 12 states requiring such. Mechanics look for indicators of problems with brakes, tires, suspensions and more.
Since new cars are engineered to be safer, some people are again questioning the need for annual inspections.
“We're all concerned about safety, but within the first two years, cars are under warranty and people are taking their cars back for anything,” said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, who intends to reintroduce legislation next year to end inspections during the first two years of new-car ownership.
He won't endorse eliminating inspections: “I'm not in favor of that. I still think most people feel safer with inspections.”
Wozniak said if his two-year exemption passes, he would consider pushing for more, possibly up to five years. Accident data comparing states show little difference, he said.
Six states require less frequent inspections, and New Jersey dumped inspections altogether in 2010.
According to 2012 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Pennsylvania ranked 30th in vehicle fatality rates, with 10.26 fatalities per 100,000 people, just better than the national average of 10.69. Pennsylvania's fatality rate is higher than neighboring states without mandatory inspections: New Jersey had 6.64 fatalities per 100,000 people, and Ohio had 9.73 fatalities per 100,000 people.
One reason fatality rates don't correlate with safety inspections is that most accidents don't involve mechanical failure, according to several studies.
Numerous studies have concluded that inspection systems aren't worth the cost, but other studies have concluded the opposite.
PennDOT commissioned a consultant, Cambridge Systematics, in 2009 to study the effectiveness of the state's inspection program. The study found that putting an estimated 11 million vehicles through garages costs motorists $267 million to $621 million. Without inspections, Pennsylvania would log between 127 and 187 more traffic fatalities each year, the consultants said.
The study cited inconsistent data collection among states and inconsistent literature on vehicle safety inspections, but found that the results, overall, indicate the program is effective.
“State inspections are important because they can detail issues before a motorist experiences a problem with the vehicle. With tires and brake pads, motorists may not be aware otherwise,” said Bevi Powell, senior vice president of AAA East Central. People could save money, Powell said, “by detecting issues earlier.”
Others say Pennsylvania should update inspection standards as cars modernize.
Many regulations were written for cars from the 1970s, said Joseph Henmueller, president of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association.
“There are literally billions of dollars in unperformed vehicle repairs on the roads. The bottom line is that people are not maintaining their vehicles properly,” Henmueller said, acknowledging that the association has a vested interest.
“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.”
Inspections range in price — some counties also require emissions tests — and garages add a $5 sticker fee that goes to PennDOT. The agency collected $21.5 million in the latest fiscal year from safety inspection stickers.
In Mt. Lebanon, where Malacki's garage performs about 150 inspections each month, mechanics check basic functions on even the newest cars.
“Cars are still the same,” he said. “You need to check the suspension, brakes, tires, glass and lights. It's like going to the doctor for a checkup.”
Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com.