Auto Blog

Why no safety inspections?

My neighbor J.B. recently asked why all states don’t perform safety inspections as a condition of vehicle registration.  I don’t have a definitive answer for the “why,” but I’m happy to share my opinions and thoughts on the topic.

First, every state is grappling with budget shortfalls, so I suspect that the funding for such a program is little more than an elusive dream.  Of course, though I have no cost/benefit data, a resulting reduction in accidents and breakdowns should eliminate some amount of taxpayer burden if the state’s vehicle fleet were in better condition.

Around the country, states vary greatly regarding their inspection requirements.  Besides safety inspections, some states also do emissions and VIN (vehicle identification number) checks.  As an example of monetary constraints, the state of Washington used to perform physical VIN checks for out-of-state vehicles seeking registration for a $15 fee; today, the fee is still charged but the physical inspection is waived.

Even given the current “green” sentiment, only about 30 states do emission testing.  In Washington, it’s only required in the urban areas of Clark, King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane counties.  You can be free of all vehicle tests (safety, emissions and VIN) in the states of Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and South Carolina.

I think safety inspections are not mandated for one of the same reasons studded tires are not banned:  Legislators are hesitant to offend any voting group, no matter how small.  If they sign a bill banning studs, they will arouse the ire of stud users (less than 10 percent in western, and about 25 percent in eastern, Washington) in their state.  If they sign a bill requiring inspections, drivers would incur costs to fix shortcomings, or potentially lose their personal transportation if unable to afford repairs.

Currently, only 17 states (Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia) perform passenger vehicle safety inspections.  Stipulations vary, but usually include an exemption for new vehicles lasting two to five years depending on the state.  Older vehicles are subject to the inspections either annually or biennially.  Vehicle owners and other taxpayers bear the costs.

But to me, the physical fitness of an automobile is an important safety consideration for operators, occupants and surrounding drivers.  Marginal equipment and mechanical functions are contributing factors in many accidents, but that data is rarely quantified.  For example, if a vehicle strikes another at an intersection, the driver may be cited for failure to yield right of way, but faulty brakes and bald tires might be partially to blame.

Those states requiring inspections are quite thorough when physically performing them.  In fact, they actually address certain driver pet peeves that have been reported in this column.  Many have complained about cars with one lit headlight, trucks that are too tall, or vehicle windows that are too dark.  Safety inspections would take care of all that, as lighting, glass glazing and height requirements are generally on the checklist.

Typical state-mandated safety inspections also include scrutiny of suspension components, steering, brakes, wheels, tires, mirrors, windshield washers, defroster, wipers (operation and blade condition), speedometer, odometer, exhaust system, horn, seat belts, body and chassis.  I can walk through almost any parking lot and find cars and trucks that would fail inspection based on remaining tire tread alone!

And supposedly, those systems get more than a quick eyeball.  In Missouri, the test includes a drive to check for proper alignment, excess steering wheel play and straight braking.  During the static test, for example, steering and suspension inspection includes condition-checks for springs/torsion bars, shock absorbers, front-wheel play, tie rod ends, idler arm, pitman arm, stabilizer links, control arms, steering box/rack, and ball joints.

Since we are not among the states offering safety inspections, vehicle owners who can not do it themselves should have an annual (at the least) checkup performed by their favorite shop.  It makes no sense to place the lives of you and your occupants in jeopardy by operating a vehicle with evident mechanical flaws.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at

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