Every North Carolina county requires annual safety inspections,. Nineteen require emissions testing, though that's about to change. // Photo credit: iStock

Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:

Question: My question relates to North Carolina’s decision to require auto safety and emission testing annually. Only a minority of states require annual inspections. I don’t have any objection to the concept, per se, but is there data as to whether moving to a less frequent schedule (say, every two years) would significantly affect safety? Presumably the businesses doing inspections would object to a loss of revenue. Does the DMV have a position on this? How about our Congressman? I believe only some counties require annual inspection. Who determines which counties will apply this rule?  What are the criteria?

My answer: This makes me wonder if the plume of blue-white smoke my 25-year-old vehicle belches out on occasion when I start it is in compliance with state law.  I just assumed my car had started smoking weed.

Real answer: Safety inspections are indeed controversial just about everywhere, and a lot of states have eliminated them. North Carolina is not one of them, however.

“Every county has annual safety inspections,” Marty R. Homan, spokesperson for the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, told me via email. “Vehicles in 19 counties are subject to an annual emissions inspection.”

That latter part is probably about to change, though. As the Winston-Salem Journal reported Sept. 27, “Annual vehicle emissions inspections would be eliminated in 18 of the 19 North Carolina counties where they are required…under an exemption tucked into the state budget approved by legislators last week. The exhaust screenings would be mandated exclusively for vehicles registered in Mecklenburg County if the federal Environmental Protection Agency ultimately signs off on the change.”

Vehicle pollution screenings in the 18 counties “would end on the first day of the month that is at least 60 days after the NCDEQ secretary certifies the EPA’s approval of the plan, according to the budget,” the Journal reported.

Meanwhile, the law remains in effect, although if your vehicle is more than 30 years old and qualifies for an antique automobile license plate, neither the emissions test nor the annual safety inspections are required. Vehicles older than 30 years are exempt from the annual safety inspection, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The counties that require the emissions testing, at least for now, are Alamance, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Davidson, Durham, Forsyth, Franklin, Gaston, Guilford, Iredell, Johnston, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Randolph, Rowan, Union, and Wake. Generally speaking, those are counties with higher populations, more vehicles on the road, and more air pollution.

As of August, North Carolina is one of 16 states that require annual inspections. (Arizona requires them just for diesel vehicles.) Another 15 require the inspections every two years, according to Insurify, a licensed insurance agency in all 50 states.

As far as our congressman’s position on this, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, said via email, “This is a state issue and Congress has no plans to take it up.”

I checked in with Buncombe’s delegation to the state legislature and heard back from two of four members, Rep. Lindsey Prather, D-Buncombe, and Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe.

Democrat Rep. Lindsay Prather on the House Floor in early June. // Credit: North Carolina General Assembly

“I haven’t seen a lot of data on this issue and I would certainly like to see more before stating for certain what legislation I would support,” Prather said via email. “I’m sure these fees disproportionately impact poorer folks, and there are lots of other car safety issues we rarely see discussed — e.g. the increasing size and weight of the average family vehicle.”

Prather said she could support eliminating emissions tests, with the EPA’s approval, “and reducing the frequency of safety inspections for certain vehicles.

“There were actually two bills introduced this session that would reduce emissions inspections, and I do think there’s bipartisan interest and potential that we will address this again,” Prather said.

Safety inspections in North Carolina cost $13.60, the emissions testing $30, and tinted windows inspections $10.

Sen. Julie Mayfield // Credit: North Carolina General Assembly

Mayfield noted the legislature did remove the emissions testing for every county but Mecklenburg.

“That reflects an improvement in air quality such that many believe testing is no longer needed,” Mayfield said via email. “But the safety inspections remain. I don’t feel strongly about them one way or another — if they don’t really serve to improve safety or inform owners about issues with their vehicles, then we should not require them. But I don’t know if any movement (is) afoot to eliminate them.”

Homan noted that the DMV does not take a position on whether to have inspections or not. That’s for the state legislature to decide.

Safety inspections in North Carolina are required to renew your registration, and they have to be done no more than 90 days before the license plate and registration expires. During the inspection, mechanics examine headlights, accessory lights, directional signals, foot brake, parking brake, steering, tires, horn, rearview mirror​, windshield wipers, exhaust system, emission control components and tinted windows, if applicable.

I suspect here in North Carolina they also disable the turn signals, if they’re working properly. I jest, but not much.

Now, as far as any studies being done on the efficacy of inspections and if they prevent crashes, Homan said North Carolina has not commissioned any such study. He did share a 2009 Pennsylvania Department of Transportation study titled, “Pennsylvania’s Vehicle Safety Inspection Program Effectiveness Study.”

This report presented research on the state’s inspection program, considering the effectiveness of vehicle safety inspections on the number of fatal crashes, and the benefits of the program compared to the cost of inspections. The study looked at relevant literature over the past 40 years, involved interviews with four agencies in other states, and focused on crash data.

“The results of the statistical analysis are clear and consistent,” the report states. “Using three different classes of model formulations, states with vehicle safety inspection programs have significantly less fatal crashes than states without programs.”

The report also found the program’s benefits outweigh its costs. The research results “clearly demonstrate that the Vehicle Safety Inspection program in Pennsylvania is effective and saves lives.

“Based on the model results, Pennsylvania can be expected to have between 115 and 169 fewer fatal crashes each year, corresponding to between 127 and 187 fewer fatalities each year, than it would if it did not have a vehicle safety inspection program,” the report states.

The federal Government Accountability Office did a study in 2015 on the issue for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, noting that in 2013, the U.S. had about 5.7 million crashes resulting in 32,700 fatalities and 2.3 million injuries. 

The GAO found: “According to officials GAO interviewed from 15 state vehicle safety inspection programs, these programs enhance vehicle safety; however, the benefits and costs of such programs are difficult to quantify. State officials told GAO that inspections help identify vehicles with safety problems and result in repair or removal of unsafe vehicles from the roads.”

Citing NHTSA data, the GAO said those stats “show that vehicle component failure is a factor in about 2 to 7 percent of crashes.

“Given this relatively small percentage as well as other factors — such as implementation or increased enforcement of state traffic safety laws — that could influence crash rates, it is difficult to determine the effect of inspection programs based on crash data,” the report states. “Studies GAO reviewed and GAO’s analysis of state data examined the effect of inspection programs on crash rates related to vehicle component failure, but showed no clear influence.”

The Connecticut General Assembly also commissioned a report on the topic. It stated in part:

According to “Connecticut Traffic Accident Facts (2008),” in 2008, vehicle mechanical failure was a contributing factor in .67 percent of all reported accidents in the state; in .58 percent of accidents in which someone was injured; and in .71 percent of fatal accidents. Unsafe or blown tires accounted for .35 percent of all reported accidents, .3 percent of accidents in which there was an injury, and were not involved in any accidents in which someone died.”

By far, more accidents are caused by human factors.

Connecticut’s report noted the largest single contributing factor in all crashes and in those involving an injury was a driver following another vehicle too closely — a factor in 28.35 percent of all crashes and 30.43 percent of crashes involving an injury. Also, the two largest factors in fatal crashes were people driving under the influence or losing control of their vehicles — 28.93 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

The upshot, to me, is inspections can require fixes on vehicles that in turn prevent a relatively small number of accidents. But that, obviously, could save lives, so it’s up to our legislature to decide on the cost and benefits of the program.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at  jboyle@avlwatchdog.org or 828-337-0941. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.

2 replies on “Answer Man: Can North Carolina abolish vehicle inspections? Where are they required?”

  1. What’s fairly ridiculous is that my 30-year-old car doesn’t require an inspection while my partner’s 6-year-old car does…which one do you think might be less road-worthy and more of a polluter and more in need of inspection? Our world is run by fools, and this is just one more small example.

  2. “Citing NHTSA data, the GAO said those stats “show that vehicle component failure is a factor in about 2 to 7 percent of crashes.”

    But the REAL question is how many of those component failures would have been detected at the LAST inspection which on average would be 6 MONTHS before the crash.

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