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No, mandatory vehicle safety inspections are not a good idea

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Jalopnik’s David Tracy recently called for mandatory vehicle safety inspections in all states. His argument is for the very basics: brakes, tires, systems that directly impact handling and so on. It’s an argument that Tracy, a bonafide enthusiast with a lot of experience owning and fixing questionably maintained vehicles, advances only grudgingly and with the best of all possible intentions.

On the surface, it seems like a reasonable compromise between the freedom to drive and the need to maintain safety and order on public roadways. But even ignoring the grim prospect of well-intentioned basic inspections morphing into an ever-stricter list of demands made in the name of safety — to say nothing of the potential for outright abuse, selective enforcement or corruption — it won’t make us much safer, and the costs it imposes will be borne by those least able to pay them.

Like Tracy, I live in the Detroit area. As with a majority of states, we lack even basic annual safety inspections; Michigan’s devastated infrastructure, heavy winter road salt use and persistent economic troubles mean that there are a lot of marginal vehicles on the road and/or dead on the shoulder of the expressway at any given time. If you could make a case for inspections anywhere, it would be here.

Removing junkers held together with bailing wire and duct tape from the the flow of traffic would certainly improve my peace of mind while driving. And it is possible, even likely, that basic safety inspections would prevent some number of crashes that would have happened otherwise.

That’s tricky grounds on which to advance any argument for automotive safety, though. (Note well that “absolute safety at any price” is the argument pro-autonomous car regulators will try to use to wrest steering wheels from our hands.) And in any case, the number accidents this would prevent is surprisingly low: The NHTSA’s 2015 crash stats pin around 2 percent of annual incidents nationwide can be pinned on mechanical failure.

The overwhelming majority of accidents (94 percent, give or take) are caused by driver error. You’re much more likely to be clobbered by the guy texting or doing God knows what in his brand-new luxury SUV than you are to be harmed by that hoopty Sunfire riding on four space-saver spares. Technological distractions are driving a noticeable uptick in road fatalities, even as modern cars get safer, more reliable and longer-lasting.

Yet it’s easier to kick the Sunfire owner and his car off the road than it is to teach people to respect the fact that they’re piloting multi-ton vehicles, or enforce vehicle safety laws already on the books. Yes, there are plenty of vehicle safety-related laws that could keep dangerous junkers off the road, even in Mad Max Michigan.

Which brings us to the core of my opposition to the proposal: Mandatory vehicle inspections are an easy way to make people feel safer and make regulators feel like they’re doing something to improve safety. But they will have a minor impact on accident numbers while reducing access to transportation. It is, to an extent, safety theater.

And it won’t be free. I know, I know: an actuarial approach to safety makes people uncomfortable — shades of the Pinto Memo and all that. But there are real costs to consider here. Some will be borne by taxpayers, who will have to pay to build and operate the inspection and enforcement infrastructure (at a time when we can’t even maintain our physical infrastructure). In all likelihood, drivers will pay (either the state or some authorized mechanic) for annual inspections.

Those stuck in marginal cars will pay the most of all, because their access to personal transportation — like it or not, an absolutely essential part of life outside of select urban areas — will be jeopardized. After all, nobody wants to be driving a crappy old car, but it might be the only way for someone to get to work.

Again, I get why Tracy (and others) have called for mandatory inspections. Sharing the road with poorly maintained vehicles that could fall apart at any moment is a terrifying thought. I am sure some of you have horror stories of near-misses, or worse. Still, dangerous cars are not, as personal experience and impersonal statistics suggest, as terrifying in practice as people who can’t be bothered to put the phone down while driving.

Opposing something like mandatory inspections, which promises to improve public safety, may seem stupid, but only until you weigh the cost of the proposal (high, potentially prohibitively so) against the supposed benefits (questionable, per NHTSA numbers). At least until the robots take over, if we want safer roads, we’ll need to cultivate better drivers or show willingness to penalize those who drive unsafely.

Unlike mandatory safety inspections, that’s not something that can be done at the stroke of a lawmaker’s pen — but at least the benefits won’t be illusory.

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