Will Congress Revive State Vehicle Safety Inspection Programs?
With less than half of the 50 states authorizing vehicle safety inspection programs, many repairers have anticipated a continued decline in the number of state programs. State safety inspection has not been the darling of state policymakers for many years. This has primarily been the result of fallout from the controversy surrounding emissions inspection programs during the 1990s and the lack of federal incentives to protect or establish programs.
As emissions programs in states became points of contention and at times were weakened or virtually eliminated, safety inspection often became the next target for state policymakers. In the last few years both the North Carolina and Missouri safety inspection programs have been targets of some state legislators. The case of Missouri is particularly unfortunate because of their extensive work in evaluating their program and its impact on accidents, injuries and deaths.
This is an area that the Automotive Service Association has encouraged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to pursue since the early days of the Clinton administration. NHTSA has not placed a high value on state vehicle safety inspections. This attitude toward safety inspection, coupled with the lack of review of imported aftermarket crash parts, demonstrates the agency's lack of interest in what happens to a vehicle after it leaves the dealer showroom.
The Highway Safety Act of 1966 mandated that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) prescribe uniform standards for mandatory state highway safety programs. If states did not comply, it could mean the loss of federal highway dollars for the state. One of the standards established by DOT was a requirement that states conduct periodic motor vehicle inspections. This followed with NHTSA establishing specific safety inspection standards.
According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), by 1975, 31 states and the District of Columbia had periodic inspection programs. Congress later passed the Highway Safety Act of 1976, which revoked the DOT's authority to withhold highway funds and provided that state safety programs could be approved without meeting all of NHTSA's standards. At this point, 10 states repealed their inspection programs.
As of the last ASA survey, two more states have eliminated their programs.
A July 1990 GAO Report to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations concluded:
"While NHTSA met its obligations under the 1966 legislation to prescribe standards for state inspection programs, the agency did not promote periodic inspection after the Congress restricted its sanction authority in 1976.
"Although NHTSA was not required after 1976 to support periodic inspection, it could have sponsored research and provided information to help states initiate and improve programs. Recently, NHTSA indicated a renewed interest in inspection programs and is considering how it can provide such assistance to states. GAO is making a recommendation in this regard."
In recent years, NHTSA has refused to conduct a comprehensive, up-to-date evaluation of state programs as they relate to accidents, injuries and deaths and specifically comparing states that have safety inspection to those that do not. Defending current programs or expanding the number of states that have programs is difficult without government data to present to policymakers.
In the dated NHTSA analysis available, the GAO disagreed with NHTSA's conclusions and made clear that inspection programs do reduce accident rates.
ASA is pleased that mandatory state safety inspection legislation was introduced in the new 111th Congress during the first week of the session. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, has introduced H.R. 259, the "Michael Jon Newkirk Transportation Safety Enhancement Act of 2009." The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
The purpose of the bill is to establish national standards for state safety inspection programs. States must enact and enforce "a law that requires the owner of a motor vehicle registered in the State to present the vehicle for inspection on an annual basis to ensure that the vehicle meets or exceeds motor vehicle safety standards to be established by the State. At a minimum, such standards shall ensure that the seatbelts and speedometer installed in the vehicle are operable."
Lee's bill mandates that if states do not establish and enforce safety programs, the federal government will withhold a certain percentage of the state's highway funds. No hearings have been scheduled for the legislation as of this writing.
For a number of years, ASA held - in cooperation with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators - a safety inspection forum during ASA's Congress of Automotive Repair and Service (CARS) events in Las Vegas. These forums were intended to educate repairers about how to establish or improve state vehicle inspection programs. ASA also has urged each new NHTSA administrator to consider encouraging safety inspection programs. Unfortunately, the number of states with programs has not increased and several of the programs are under threat each legislative session.
ASA believes that the new 111th Congress and new leadership at the DOT may improve the chances of more state programs being established. ASA will continue to work with the Congress and the new administration to encourage the protection of current state safety inspection programs and the possible establishment of new state programs.
To review H.R. 259, please go to ASA's legislative Web site, www.TakingtheHill.com.
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