State Legislatures Continue to Dismantle Vehicle Safety Inspection Programs
Average vehicle age is increasing,
Economic conditions and recent vehicle market reports are instigating a second look at vehicle safety inspection.
R.L. Polk & Co., a leading global automotive market intelligence firm, reported in January that “the average age of cars and light trucks currently in operation in the U.S. has increased to 10.8 years … Overall, average vehicle age has been increasing quickly over the past five years.”
In a Feb. 22 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Polk noted that Americans are keeping new vehicles longer too.
New data showing Americans are keeping vehicles longer than ever raises questions about whether a new frugality will prevent the market from returning to its $17 million-a-year annual peak during the last decade’s housing boom.
The depth of the downturn and slow recovery is reflected in a report released in April by R.L. Polk, showing the age of cars is at record levels in the United States.
Car sales continue to improve, but better-quality vehicles bought with longer financing terms and economic uncertainty are keeping consumers cautious.
Some economists say the aging trend has peaked, but won’t reverse for another year or two.
The good news: pent-up demand continues to build.
“Unemployment rates continue to be high,” said Polk aftermarket leader Mark Seng.
Polk collected data in the third quarter of 2011 showing that consumers who bought their vehicles new kept them an average of 71.4 months, or nearly six years. That is the longest in the eight years Polk has done the survey, and up from about four years of ownership in 2003.
With increasingly older vehicles on America’s highways, why do some state legislatures continue to weaken or dismantle their state’s vehicle safety inspection programs? Less than half of the 50 states have vehicle safety inspection programs. This is a result of fallout from the controversy surrounding emissions inspection programs during the 1990s and the lack of federal incentives to protect or establish programs.
Although there has been legislation introduced in the last few congresses that would establish basic state inspection programs, there has been little progress. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has shown virtually no interest in protecting current state programs or advocating incentives for new or enhanced safety inspection programs.
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 was followed by NHTSA establishing specific safety inspection standards.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that by 1975,
Ten states followed by repealing their inspection programs. The District of Columbia has eliminated its program. Other states such as New Jersey have also discontinued their program. Some state legislatures (Utah, for example) have opted to dilute their programs versus elimination. Hawaii, North Carolina and Missouri face regular attacks on their inspection programs.
The states of Pennsylvania and Missouri have led the way with official reports on the importance of vehicle safety inspection. The Pennsylvania DOT-sanctioned report concluded that the state inspection program “is an effective program that reduces fatal crashes and saves lives in Pennsylvania.” Specifically:
In the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s report, they found that “Vehicles registered in the state of Missouri not only had proportionately fewer vehicle defects than all vehicles involved in fatal crashes, they had proportionately fewer vehicle defects than those registered in other states having periodic motor vehicle inspection programs.”
As Congress struggles with the reauthorization of federal highway legislation, it still fails to provide significant incentives for state periodic motor vehicle safety inspection. Legislation being considered in the Congress does contain various incentives, research authorizations, etc. for vehicle safety, but fails to recognize a historically successful program structure that has been reviewed by states and at least one federal agency.
The Automotive Service Association (ASA) supports state periodic motor vehicle inspection. ASA’s Mechanical Division Operations Committee is currently reviewing the state of periodic motor vehicle safety inspection. (See related story on page 10.)
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