Do Mandatory Vehicle Inspections Really Make Us Safer?

Most state laws that require regular safety inspections for passenger vehicles were passed more than 75 years ago, at a time when motor vehicle fatalities per mile traveled were about 8 times higher than in the 21st century and vehicles lacked many of the safety features we benefit from today. A growing number of states — 35 at last count, plus the District of Columbia — have done away with these outdated regulations, and the rest of the country should follow suit.

But don’t mandatory vehicle inspections keep unsafe cars off the road and reduce accidents? In fact, when researchers dig into the data, they consistently fail to find any significant reduction in motor vehicle injuries or fatalities in states that have mandatory inspections. In 2015, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog, found that the existing research “has generally been unable to establish any causal relationship” between inspection requirements and crash rates.

When North Carolina officials examined the efficacy of mandatory inspection programs in 2008, they concluded that “nearly three decades of research has failed to conclusively show that mechanical defects are a significant cause of motor vehicle accidents or that safety inspections significantly reduce accident rates.”

Nebraska discovered that the number of crashes caused by vehicle defects actually declined after its mandatory inspection program was ended in 1982.

If vehicle safety inspections had a noticeable impact on accident rates, you’d expect auto insurers to price accordingly, offering lower premiums to drivers in states with mandatory inspections. But that not what the data shows. If anything, states without these mandates tend to have slightly lower auto insurance rates than the national average.

There are several reasons why mandatory inspections are ineffective. For one, safety inspections are far from consistent in identifying mechanical concerns. In one study, investigators deliberately created eleven defects in a car, ranging from a missing tail light to a minor oil leak, and had it inspected by 40 different repair shops. In 55 percent of visits, two or fewer defects were detected. In only 10 percent of visits were the majority of the defects discovered. Clearly, mandatory inspections are no guarantee that unsafe vehicles will stay off the road.

Even if vehicle inspections worked perfectly, they’d still only affect a tiny fraction of car crashes. Federal investigators have found that mechanical component failures are responsible for only 2 percent of accidents. By contrast, driver errors account for 94 percent of all crashes.

It’s also important to keep in mind that drivers have strong incentives to maintain their vehicles in reasonably good condition, whether or not the government tells them to. For many safety-sensitive systems like braking and steering, the average amount of time that passes from detection to repair is typically no more than a few weeks. In these cases, annual inspections are largely superfluous. Data also shows that drivers in western states — almost none of which have mandatory inspections — actually spend more on vehicle maintenance and repairs than drivers in northeastern states, where mandatory inspections are common.

One thing’s for sure: Inspection mandates create artificial demand for auto mechanics, giving unscrupulous shops the incentive to make up nonexistent defects, accept bribes to pass unsafe vehicles, and perform blazing-fast inspections that overlook potential hazards.

While the benefits of these mandates are minimal, the costs to motorists are significant. One study in Texas found that inspections have taken close to $2.4 billion out of drivers’ pockets over ten years. And that doesn’t capture the wasted time and effort Texans spend. The real beneficiaries of these regulations are government coffers and auto mechanics, not the public.

Policymakers should eliminate the needless burden these laws impose on motorists.

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