In the United States, owning a motor vehicle is practically a necessity for most adults because of the significant lack of reliable public transportation infrastructure in most parts of the country. Owning a vehicle grants people in suburban and rural areas the ability to have access to more job opportunities, better healthcare, and safer means of getting around. However, in about a third of all U.S. states, mandatory vehicle inspections make this necessity even more difficult to access for low-income households. Every one to two years, the citizens of states with mandatory vehicle inspections go through the fear that they may have to drop up to thousands of dollars on car repairs to be able to continue to drive.
Maybe the disproportionate impact on low-income households could be overlooked if evidence existed that mandatory vehicle safety inspections significantly decreased traffic accidents, but that does not seem to be the case. In the 2015 Government Accountability Report, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) noted that the significant downtrend in states requiring mandatory inspections from 1975 to 2015 is largely because of questions about their effectiveness. A study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) demonstrated that only 2% of motor vehicle crashes were caused by vehicle component failure, while in the majority of crashes (94%), the study found the driver to be the critical factor. Environment or unknown reasons caused the remaining 4% of crashes. The NHTSA also specially notes that, upon a closer look at the 2% where vehicle component failure was the reason assigned to the accident, none of these reasons implied the vehicle necessarily caused the crash. In these cases, there was a vehicle defect present that might have caused the crash, but another factor might have been in play.
The GAO also stated in its report that “[t]hree U.S. studies of the relationship between safety inspections and crash rates over the past two decades have failed to find ‘statistically significant differences in crash rates in states with inspection programs compared to those without.’” Plus, of three international studies, only one suggested that these mandatory inspections “potentially reduce the likelihood of crashes,” but even that study was unable to determine what ramifications, if any, that the inspections actually had. The American Consumer Institute also backs these claims, saying that researchers “consistently fail to find any significant reduction in motor vehicle injuries or fatalities in states that have mandatory inspections.”
Depending on the state, a person must take their car into a certified vehicle inspection location (most auto shops) annually or biannually for a vehicle inspection. While the inspections themselves are relatively cheap, usually ranging from $10 to $50, the costs of repairing the vehicles that do not pass can be enormous. While vehicles need some repairs in order to function, auto-shops are known for listing unnecessary (at least in terms of safety) reasons a vehicle failed inspection.
Vehicle inspection requirements ignore the fact that drivers have a strong incentive to keep their vehicle in reasonably good mechanical condition. For many safety-sensitive systems like braking and steering, the average amount of time that passes from detection to repair is low – typically no more than a few weeks. In these cases, annual inspections are largely superfluous.
This indicates that, generally, no matter the income level, people get important repairs done as they become necessary, so the vehicle problems typically found during inspection are not necessarily safety issues. Therefore, people in mandatory inspection states sometimes pay for expensive repairs on their cars that they otherwise would not get. For instance, an auto shop may tell someone to replace the rusted-out panels above the wheel wells. This type of repair does not impact the function of the car and is merely cosmetic. Similar repair orders may come up for the first time during an inspection because passing requirements across inspection stations are rather inconsistent and because people of low income tend to only take their cars to be checked if they are not functioning safely or at all.
These safety inspections typically check that the vehicle’s essential components are functioning properly. In addition, for environmental safety, some states also require emissions testing to check for pollutants. If a vehicle fails this inspection, the inspection station gives the owner a list of the vehicle components that need to be fixed. Then the owner must comply and get the vehicle reinspected.
The consequences for driving an uninspected vehicle or a vehicle with an expired sticker vary by state, but usually consist of a ticket, fine, and the inability to renew the vehicle registration until the vehicle passes inspection. For example, New York state fines people up to $200, or in some cases, places them in jail for up to fifteen days for driving a vehicle without a valid inspection sticker. In Massachusetts, a person’s insurance costs could increase due to a violation. New Hampshire issues a ticket for $60 and may refuse to reissue registration for the vehicle until it passes. While these consequences for a violation may seem to be a fair exchange for safer roads, it raises the questions: Who do these polices impact most, and does this process genuinely make driving safer?
The primary problem with mandatory vehicle inspections is that these laws disproportionately burden people with lower incomes. While states designed the laws to promote vehicle user-safety and to decrease emissions, the burden on lower-income households outweighs these outdated good intentions. People who tend to drive older, beat-up cars are those who cannot afford to be driving newer models that are less likely to have the wear and tear that would cause them to fail inspection.
When their vehicles do fail inspection, whether for unwarranted or legitimate reasons, low-income households must choose between spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on car repairs to meet the passing standard, trying to find a new car within their budget that would pass, not driving, or violating the law by continuing to drive the car without an inspection sticker and running the risk of fines, insurance increases, registration holds, or even jail time. On the other hand, the vehicles of people who can afford newer model cars typically pass inspection on the first go because newer cars do not tend to have as many mechanical issues. Due to this trend, mandatory vehicle safety inspections adversely affect low-income households the most and create barriers to access for the portions of this population that live in non-urban areas.
“Most state laws that require regular safety inspections for passenger vehicles were passed more than 75 years ago,” when motor vehicle fatalities were much higher because vehicles had far less technologically advanced safety features than today. Approximately one-third of U.S. states continue to require mandatory vehicle safety inspections in the name of public safety, despite the lack of evidence that inspections significantly impact the rate of automobile accidents. However, in the last thirty years, several states have loosened requirements or chosen to do away with their mandatory inspection laws altogether. For instance, in 2001, Oklahoma passed a law abolishing vehicle inspections in the state, saying that they are no longer necessary for road safety due to modern vehicles having advanced safety features. For similar reasons, Nebraska did away with mandatory vehicle inspections and found that its number of vehicle defect-related accidents actually declined. New Jersey eliminated mandatory safety inspections back in 2010, then reduced emissions requirements in 2016, “citing beliefs that there is no conclusive evidence that they are necessary.”
In recent years, there have been rumblings in states like Texas, Maine, and Virginia about bills proposing the abolition or frequency reduction of mandatory vehicle inspections. Thus far, all legislative proposals on the topic have ultimately flopped, but will such states continue to hold out? With costs of vehicles and vehicle repairs on the rise, perhaps the remaining third of states that continue to maintain outdated laws will decide that the cost to low-income, or even the average, household outweighs the inconclusive impact on public safety.
States that continue to maintain mandatory safety inspection programs likely have their citizens’ best interests at heart. However, effectively denying low-income households access to personal transportation due to inability to afford a laundry-list of car repairs is an unfortunate outcome of these programs. If, despite a lack of supporting evidence, these remaining states want to continue mandatory inspections, they could create government programs to alleviate the financial burden car repairs place on people with low income. For example, the state could implement a tiered system similar to food stamps, where, if a household makes below a set income and meets certain factors, they receive money in an account specifically allotted for car repairs each year.
Another potential solution would be state governments partnering with the inspection stations and subsidizing the inspection-required repairs for low-income vehicle owners. For example, if a vehicle owner earns below a certain income level, the owner can apply for financial assistance, and the government can pay back the auto-shop for a portion of the necessary repairs. This also may help to eliminate auto-shop inspection stations adding superfluous items to the repair list, if the government refused to cover non-safety related repairs.
Fortunately, the federal government and some local organizations have begun to implement programs similar to these suggestions. Hopefully, the trend continues to develop and spread so that the states can better balance public safety and low-income transportation access.
Emily Lambert is a J.D. candidate for the class of 2024 at Cornell Law School. Prior to attending Cornell, she worked in children’s mental health as a behavioral interventionist in Vermont. She completed her B.S. in International Business and B.A. in Spanish at Norwich University. Emily is a member of the Cornell Christian Legal Society and Women’s Law Coalition, participates in Moot Court, and currently conducts non-jury trials as an intern for the Ithaca city prosecutor. Her academic interests include healthcare law and general litigation.
Suggested Citation: Emily Lambert, Mandatory Motor Vehicle Inspections: Keeping the Roads Safe or Unduly Impacting the Poor?, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (Nov. 14, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/mandatory-motor-vehicle-inspections-keeping-the-roads-safe-or-unduly-impacting-the-poor/.