The Politician and the Mechanic are Still Conspiring to Rip Me Off

Mark Gibson writing in the Washington Post:

Virginia has a personal vehicle safety program overseen by the state police that cannot be shown to enhance public safety. The people who perform inspections are often the same people who fix any identified deficiencies. By contrast, neighboring Maryland requires only that a safety inspection take place upon transfer of ownership. That’s a reasonable consumer protection. The District does not require safety inspections.

A government program that requires the purchase of a good or service in return for a nonexistent public benefit is illiberal and anti-consumer. Two-thirds of states see no need to impose the burden of annual personal vehicle safety inspections on their citizens; Virginia should end its inspection requirement.

Tyler and I have been writing Marginal Revolution for 13 years now and one of the disadvantages is that you learn how little has changed. I first wrote about this absurd government program in 2003:

Virginia requires yearly “safety” inspections of automobiles. Yesterday, it was my turn – it cost me $15 bucks and an hour of my time. What a pain. Merrell, Poitras and Sutter estimate that nationally inspection programs cost in excess of a billion dollars a year (I think this is a serious underestimate – see below). What do we get for our time and effort? Not much. MPS find that mandatory inspections do not reduce highway fatalities or injuries. Not surprising really since there are already good incentives to maintain one’s car and accidents are most often caused by factors, primarily driver behaviour, that are not inspected. (By the way, yes there is an externality but if self-interest alone causes you to replace a broken headlight then on the margin the externality is irrelevant – economists often forget this point.)

MPS arrive at the billion plus figure by summing inspection fees and travel time. But the major cost of the inspection system, in my opinion, is unnecessary repairs. Mechanics have an incentive to indicate a car needs repairs and it is difficult to know when they are speaking the truth. This problem is bad enough when you have brought your car to the mechanic voluntarily – at least then you know the car has a problem. But the potential for opportunistic behaviour is worse when you are required to take your car in for inspection and if you don’t follow the mechanic’s advice you fail. The mechanics know they have you over a barrel and act accordingly.

About the only thing that has changed is that now I spell behavior differently.


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