State Periodic Motor Vehicle Inspections

What you need to know

It is common knowledge that regular checkups are one of the best ways to maintain good health. Good medical providers can spot problems before they start and prevent any new issues from developing. By investing in prevention, often the need for cure is eliminated. The same is true for automobiles. Regular safety inspec­tions by a qualified technician can identify and fix most safety issues that can arise from normal wear and tear on the vehicle.


For example, Virginia’s comprehensive program requires vehicles to undergo an annual inspection. During this inspection, the technician will test a vehicle’s brakes, headlights, steering, suspension, tires, mirrors, horn, windshield, seat belts and air bags. All of these systems or features can and do wear out with time. This is why regular inspections are vital.

Today, less than half the states in the U.S. have any type of periodic motor vehicle inspection (PMVI) program. Of the states that have programs, several only require a vehicle safety inspection when the vehicle is sold or transferred. The scarcity of PMVI programs, coupled with the current economic conditions, have led to an increased number of neglected repairs. However, this has not always been the case.

In 1966, Congress passed the Highway Safety Act, which required the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to institute a uniform standard for mandatory state highway safety programs. One of the Dept. of Transporta­tion’s (DOT) standards was a requirement for states to conduct PMVI programs. By tying highway safety grant funds and federal construction funds to a state’s compliance with the programs, the DOT all but ensured across-the-board inspections. Soon after, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) established 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. Following this act, 10 states disbanded their inspection programs altogether. NHTSA, devoid of its sanction authority, no longer made the effort to promote PMVI programs, and the number of inspection states has been on the decline ever since. Today, only 18 states require regular safety inspections (see chart on page 15).

This is an area that the Automotive Service Association has encouraged NHTSA to pursue since the early days of the Clinton administration. Despite the findings in a 1989 report where the GAO concluded that state PMVI programs reduce the number of poorly maintained vehicles with worn or defective brakes, tires, lights or other safety-related components, the number of state programs has declined and federal incentives for state programs are not in place. Earlier this year, a group of ASA’s leaders met with David Friedman, NHTSA’s acting administrator, to discuss the importance of vehicle safety inspection.

During the meeting, Friedman acknowledged that independent repairers are a valuable source of on-the-ground expertise and expressed interest in working directly with ASA’s members. During the same visit, ASA members traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with key members of Congress and their staff to explain the importance of vehicle safety inspections. ASA members recounted personal stories from their home states, emphasizing the value and necessity of periodic inspections.


With Congress reviewing vehicle safety issues and transportation programs, ASA is continuing to request that NHTSA conduct a national study that compares accidents, injuries and deaths in those states that have PMVI programs to those states that do not have PMVI programs. This study would be an asset to national vehicle safety policy. As PMVI programs are conducted by individual states, the information that NHTSA could provide through this study and others like it would prove invaluable for state legislatures attempting to establish or continue inspection programs. The caliber of information that NHTSA could provide would not be feasible at a state-by-state level.

Two states with exemplary vehicle safety inspection programs are Pennsylvania and Missouri. Officials in these two states have studies available demonstrating the value of these programs in the protection against injury, the loss of life, and property. In the 2009 Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot) study, Cambridge Systematics Inc. performed a series of tests to determine the effectiveness of a PMVI program. The following is an excerpt from the official study:

“The research considered the effectiveness of vehicle safety inspections on the number of fatal crashes, and the benefits of the program compared to the cost of inspections to the owners of Pennsylvania-registered vehicles. After a review of the most relevant literature over the previous 40 years, and interviews with representatives from four agencies with responsibility for similar programs in other states, a statistical analysis was developed and implemented. The statistical analysis focused on crash data from the Fatality Analysis Report­ing System (FARS), control data from a variety of national sources, and characteristics of existing programs nationwide. The results of the statistical analysis are clear and consistent. Using three different classes of model formulations, states with vehicle safety inspection programs have significantly [fewer] fatal crashes than states without programs. The benefits of the program as derived from all three models exceed the user costs of the program. The results of the research clearly demonstrate that the Vehicle Safety Inspection program in Pennsylvania is effective and saves lives.”

A lack of regular maintenance poses a risk to the safety of the vehicle owner, his or her passengers, other drivers, pedestrians and property. In addition, it hurts the long-term value of the vehicle. Safety inspections have been proven to reduce the number of accidents caused by vehicle defects, preserve the quality of safety-related vehicle components and diminish the amount of fatal accidents. This fall, ASA will be hosting a one-day conference in Pennsylvania to determine how best to promote the importance of PMVI programs. ASA will continue to monitor safety inspection issues around the country to keep shops informed so they can be in compliance with any new or pending legislation.

State Inspection Programs At-A-Glance

Delaware Biennial
Hawaii Annual
Louisiana Varies by Location
Maine Annual
Maryland Prior to Sale Only
Massachusetts Annual
Mississippi Annual
Missouri Biennial
New Hampshire Annual
New York Annual
North Carolina Annual
Pennsylvania Annual
Maryland Prior to Sale Only
Rhode Island Biennial
Texas Annual
Utah Varies by Model Year
Vermont Annual
Virginia Annual
West Virginia Annual