Vehicle Safety Inspections Don’t Increase Safety

In 2003 I wrote The Politician and Mechanic Conspire to Rip Me Off in which I cited a study (another here) showing that annual automobile safety inspections do not increase safety but do waste time and money and generate unnecessary repairs. I have continued to rant about these wasteful policies ever since.

Today, however, there is some good news. As vehicle quality is increasing, some states are actually discontinuing these “safety” inspections including the District of Columbia in 2009, New Jersey in 2010, and Mississippi in 2015. Repeal, however, is still hotly contested in many states:

“If [the repeal] is passed,” said Texas Senator Eddie Lucero, Jr., “I am going to have trouble sleeping at night. Why are you willing to place yourself and Texans in danger by passing [this repeal]?” Similarly, Utah Representative Jim Dunnigan claimed that many of his constituents “would drive their car until their brakes fall off and their muffler falls off and their tires fall off” and that an inspection was the only way to ensure that vehicle owners took care of potential safety concerns. These claims are backed by most automobile service stations, who generally profit from performing the inspections and now claim that repealing the inspection program “will definitely result in more accidents.”

That’s from a new paper by Hoagland and Woolley that uses New Jersey, a repeal state, to test whether repeal leads to more accidents. Using a synthetic control methodology and precise data on fatal accident rates from throughout the United States, Hoagland and Woolley conclude that:

…removing the requirements resulted in no significant increases in any of traffic fatalities per capita, traffic fatalities due specifically to car failure per capita, or the frequency of accidents due to car failure. Therefore, we conclude that vehicle safety inspections do not represent an efficient use of government funds, and do not appear to have any significantly mitigating effect on the role of car failure in traffic accidents.

It’s time to ditch the annual safety inspection and either move to no inspection system at all or like Maryland move to a system that requires safety inspections only at transfer. I’m not convinced that is necessary either, since at transfer is precisely when the buyer will run an inspection anyway, but at least that system would reduce the number of inspections significantly.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.


Has there been any work on the effects of inspections on insurance rates? I would love to see them go, but here in PA the conventional wisdom is that we have much lower costs for uninsured motorist coverage because checking your insurance is part of the inspection. You could of course do that lots of ways other than inspections, but it is a good part of the current system (if true.)

Also, are fatal accidents really the best thing to look at? There are a lot more accidents than fatal accidents, so you are looking at a small subset. And how are they defining "accidents due to car failure?" I would assume that, say, bad brakes would be part of the cause of some "driver error" accidents even if that is not the box ticked on the accident report or whatever. (I can't see the paper, not being at GMU.)

"Has there been any work on the effects of inspections on insurance rates? I would love to see them go, but here in PA the conventional wisdom is that we have much lower costs for uninsured motorist coverage because checking your insurance is part of the inspection."

I too would like to see if there is any effect and what it's magnitude might be.

I recently moved to Texas from Montana. Texas has annual vehicle safety inspections while Montana has none and my insurance rates went UP nearly $100 per month so I'm going to say that safety inspections have NO impact on insurance rates.

I do not know about Montana, but I do know Texas law requires all insurance companies doing business in Texas to maintain offices in the state, probably adds to the bottom line, also the amounts of coverage are set by Texas, not the insurance company.

In most states, don't you have to have proof of insurance to renew your registration? If so, how would having an inspection in addition help with that problem?


I've lived in Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Maryland. In all four I've had to give my insurer's name and my policy no. to renew my tags (and of course to register a new vehicle). I have no idea whether the state actually verifies the info, but I'm surprised to hear some don't at least ask for it.

In many states the insurer notifies the state when an insurance policy lapses, and the police can query the database during a traffic stop.

I've lived in Maine, Nebraska, Montana, and now Texas and in every state I had to show proof of insurance to register a vehicle.

If more thorough enforcement of automotive liability coverage is desirable, the state and the insurance carriers could electronically verify coverage as part of renewing the auto registration, and leave the mechanic out of it.

In NJ you have to provide your insurance policy # when you register/renew your car, but that's free form text so people can and do submit expired policies.

However, when you let your insurance lapse, the company tells NJ. Given enough time you'll get a letter form MVC asking for updated insurance info or risk having your license suspended. Also cops can now scan your license plate and verify you don't have insurance and use that to pull you over. The days of driving around with no insurance and using a card from a policy you didn't pay are over.

Don't most states require proof insurance to register a vehicle or renew a registration? I know I have to include my policy no even when I renew online.

I certainly see why these inspections are not adding value for new and reasonably new cars. For older cars, however, they would seem to make a lot more sense. A schedule of inspections after, say, 4 and 8 years and every second year after that sounds not unreasonable.

I also agree that looking at fatalities only is wildly skewing the data.

Only 17 states have safety inspections? We don't, but we do have smog checks every two years. I think they are a pain, but worthwhile. In my youth most cars were so bad you can smell the hydrocarbons coming out of them. Now those are very rare.

You think those cars would come back if the inspection requirement was revoked? Car quality has significantly increased since your youth and the biannual inspections have little to do with it.

It's not so much "car quality" (though that is greatly improved), as "Federal emissions mandates", in this case.

A few people would cat delete and a few more would emissions delete on diesels, if they could get away with it, but those people would be pretty much rounding error overall, I imagine.

(It'd compound a bit over time, as people who don't want to buy a replacement for a failed cat - they're not cheap - moved to straight pipes.)

So quite possibly smog checks combined with the registration process (like here in OR) have a noticeable effect on air quality, overall ... but eliminating them won't send us back to 1970, or even 1990.

I think you overestimate the propensity of someone to go to the trouble of cat deleting. If a cat fails, most people would scrap the car and get a new one. I'd say less than 5% of owners would even know that the car could run without one AND be willing to fudge the law to run straight pipes. These aren't a significant contributor to emissions I don't think. Even so, those people willing to do all the above probably "know a guy" or can grease the palms to get through any required inspection process.

+1. If a smog check fails, the next question will be: "How much will it cost to pass the smog check?" Fraud is significant:

We don't have emissions checks here in Michigan. I can confirm that here, too, there seem to be very few vehicles blowing smoke as compared to when I was a kid.

Michigan used to have emissions tests in the Metro Detroit area. This was done at various privately owned service stations. Then it was discovered that some of these businesses were flunking vehicles that passed and charging for unnecessary repairs. That was the end for emissions testing.

Of course, auto safety inspections and similar nonsense is non-partisan, which makes them difficult to avoid and difficult to eliminate. My state dropped auto safety inspections many years ago. It wasn't just the expense but the enormous waste of time, the latter likely a greater cost to the economy than the former a cost to the state. Then there's airport security inspections! It's a colossal waste of time and money, even worse than auto safety inspections. So why hasn't Congress eliminated airport security inspections? Fear that if they do somebody will take a weapon or bomb on an aircraft and high-jack the aircraft or blow it up. If that's true, then why doesn't Congress restrict the sale of assault weapons since they are repeatedly used in mass killings? Well, Congress is paid not to adopt an assault weapons ban but is not paid not to adopt auto safety inspections and airport security inspections. What we need is a national inspections czar. If I were appointed, I'd eliminate auto safety inspections and airport security inspections but I'd ban not only the sale of assault weapons but also retread tires on semi trailers. I'm not optimistic that I will be appointed inspections czar. I would nominate Tabarrok, but only on the condition that he ban the sale of assault weapons and retread tires.

Car safety inspections are state functions.

But, oh, my.

America's gun violence epidemic will decrease by over 90% when Democrats stop shooting people.

The US has the third highest murder rate on the Planet. Remove from the US statistics murders happening in the top-five (for murders) democrat-ruined cities, think Chicago, New Orleans, LA, etc., and the US drops to 187th worst murder rate in the World. It isn't racism if it's true.

That and the Second Amendment.

". . . assault weapons since they are repeatedly used in mass killings? Well, Congress is paid not to adopt an assault weapons ban . . ."

That's the motivation for giving $$$ to the NRA.

Mass shootings? If you don't live in a Democrat city, your odds of winning $400 million in the Mega Millions lotto Friday night are about the same as you getting shot with a AR-15.

In a recent year, in a nation with 330,000,000 people, 15 were killed by AR-15-type firearms that autonomously leapt up and blasted those 15 of 330,000,000 people. In the same year, knives attacked and killed 1,817; hammers, clubs, etc. executed 874; Hands/feet killed 869; teen text/driving eliminated over 400; 60,000 died from opium-drug overdoses; and approximately 1.1 million babies were murdered in their mothers' wombs.

You and I can be the under-card for the Biden/Trump bout.


In which Dick the Butcher pummels rayward into a tiny stain on the pavement.


If it is working so well .. no. It could actually be that rants like this overplay your hand and cost you support.

The NRA overplaying its hand could also be why this happened:

No money, no research, as it should be. The CDC should be researching real diseases, not murderers who happen to use guns. Let gun control activists fund their own lobbying, not taxpayers.

You poor sad soul, you actually think data analysis is lobbying?

Why, because true answers might bother you?

You are that self-deluded to think that the push to have the CDC do that sort of research (that is only tangentially related to its main mission) is somehow motivated by the disinterested pursuit of the truth. Talk about sad.

Someone needs talk therapy

You realize "Dick" is just copy-pasting some crazy emails some wack-job from his gun club sent him. It isn't true at all:

(And I'm an NRA member! I just hate lies.)

I didn't read the paper yet, but NJ still requires an emissions inspection every 2-4 yrs depending on vehicle age. Basically, it is down to them plugging into the OBD II connector and seeing if the computer has any diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs). I am not sure what would happen if a brake system light was on, but if there is an emissions DTC you'll have to get it fixed, at which point you'll be in the shop anyway.

States mandate auto insurance. They could repeal the state mandate for inspections but allow insurers to require inspections or to offer discounts to people who get inspections. If insurance companies decide that getting an inspection does not merit a discount, that suggests inspections have little use.

I'm not convinced that's correct. Insurance companies only care about the vehicle per the costs that effect them. A vehicle in poor running condition might actually be a better deal from their perspective, because it might get driven very few miles but still be charged at full rates. And I don't imagine insurance companies care if a vehicle gets poor gas mileage or pollutes.

I'm not saying that vehicle inspections are necessarily worth it, only that their entire worth can't be determined by the effects on insurance.

Well, "safety" inspections don't cover fuel economy or emissions, either.

(Who cares about fuel economy? The person buying the fuel. Other people can earn an opinion on it by buying some fuel for that car.)

If safety inspections had a real impact on safety, I'd expect insurers to either require them or, more likely, offer a nice discount for having them, and inflated rates for not, for the obvious actuarial reasons (regulations permitting, which would be a fine idea if the data supported it.

Problem is, the data doesn't seem to actually support the inspections improving "safety".)

Safety inspections are supposed to be about safety, not about aesthetic issues, or fuel efficiency and the like. Insurance companies certainly do care about vehicle safety.

Sure guys. And the Department of Defense is only about defending the country, the Internal Revenue Service only cares about money earned inside the US and Of course I'll care about you in the morning.

How many states have Vehicle Safety inspections that don't also have Vehicle emissions requirements? According to this, it looks like just Mississippi.

Granted, I understand your point. Do your particular states have the two inspections as two separate events? If so, you could curtail one without effecting the other. But in my area, theyr'e combined.

MA has annual safety and emissions inspections. Judging by the number of autos with a head or tail light burned out, the safety part isn't super effective. The emissions part has required increasingly expensive equipment (which the gas station owners must buy) and an increasingly heavily monitored process over time.

Originally, it was a wand that got stuck into the tail pipe, but people figured out that if the wand was on the floor instead it worked just as well but registered no excessive pollution. So they slipped the inspector $5 and everyone was happy. (The bribery part was already rampant back when there was only a safety inspection. If you knew the right guy, you didn't even have to show up, which was a big benefit as you had to get inspected twice a year.)

The process was modified to ensure that the wand was properly inserted. Then people figured out ways around that, and the state made more changes, but recently the state said they were going to require all inspections to be filmed, the expense of the cameras being borne by the gas station -- $5k or more, IIRC.

One outcome is that over time fewer and fewer stations are willing to perform inspections, and yet the state reimbursement for doing them is (according to the station owners) too low for them to make a profit. Obviously the dynamic might be rather different in states that run their own inspection sites.

Around here, if the car isn't ancient, they plug into the OBD2 port, and it's required that the port work for any car new enough to have one - and that's "1996 and later" for the US.

That's something the operator can't really bypass [because the year of manufacture is part of the registration], so ...

Another problem with inspections is they lead to economic waste. I had a Volvo 240 which I spend a fair amount of money to keep running well, but it failed inspection (in NH at the time) because the inspector said the front bearings were shot. He was a kid and was used to front-wheel and all-wheel drive cars where that is not the case. I made a complaint, but it took months to resolve. Every time I bring my car in for inspection, something that has to be fixed. I grit my teeth and have it done. Just a cost of owning a non-new car.

Most people will try to trade their car in as soon as possible and get something from a dealer to avoid all that. Most cars can run 20 years with maintenance. It's good for the environment, it's good for auto-mechanics--keep in mind I want to pay mechanics to keep my cars in good condition--it's the extortion of inspections that ruins it for me. I enjoy the journey and relationship, of me and my mechanic, to keep the car on the road. But the inspections, as you've pointed out, have become more about inspecting for inspection sake than anything else.

Also, I too am amazed at how many cars I see with burnt out lights. Again, part of the new throw-away culture in car design and upkeep. On a rainy day, that's the most dangerous thing about cars.

Are we seriously going to "debate" things like crash rates, fatality rates, and wasted time for the citizenry.... when the only relevant fact here is that (in my case) the State profits $10 per car per year from the inspection program.... plus another $10 on every transfer?

I'd like to have more faith in you people than that.

In my youth I drove cars that were, shall we say , 'questionable'. Inspections did put a cap on kids who would drive cars with shot brakes, bumpers dripped off, even windshields broken out.

But I agree today the car fleet is much higher quality and there's less tolerance, I suspect, for cars with major safety issues to keep working these days. Plus insurance companies are mandatory in NJ. One would think they would target unsafe cars with higher premiums and even demand a private inspection in some cases. On top of that obvious safety issues can be addressed by cops who can pull over cars with busted headlights, dragging mufflers etc.

Much of the Third World has the benefit of second hand Japanese cars. A bit awkward somewhere like the Philippines where people drive on the other side of the road. However the Japanese export a lot of slightly-used cars to other countries. They used to do so to Russia - creating entirely new markets in young men who wanted to trash a cheap car in front of thousands of people.

What drives this is the Japanese safety inspections which are costly - especially on cars that are slightly old.

So I think you have to look at the global picture. Does forcing cars to be exported to Third World countries like Russian where young men can race them around mud-filled tracks until they roll reduce safety or increase safety?

I'm sure those young men would be sitting quietly at home reading novels if they didn't have access to cheap Japanese used cars.

New paper seems to be behind a George Mason U gate and hence not accessible to outsiders. Too bad.

@Alex: Would you please request a link by which the Hoagland and Woolley paper could be made accessible to the general public? Thanks in advance.

I think I found it, or a similar paper by the same authors:

Or maybe that wraps around to the same place

Utah just discontinued inspections starting this year as well.

But the major cost of the inspection system, in my opinion, is unnecessary repairs."

There's an obvious conflict of interest in having the same business determine that your vehicle is not safe to drive and then segue into selling you the needed repairs.

What's always surprised me about mandatory inspection laws is how they universally refuse to do anything at all to mitigate this problem. Surely even those who see benefits in these mandatory inspections sufficient to justify their cost and inconvenience can see this all-too-obvious flaw?

Britain's MoT test has a mystery shopper system. The Department for Transport will send someone to a test centre with a car which has some known faults and is otherwise fine. They can then check that the inspector hasn't either missed faults or reported non-existent faults. The Department can then take appropriate action.

The test is called the Ministry of Transport test because that was the department's name when it was introduced in 1960. The Department for Transport is the current successor after several re-organisations.

New South Wales has an annual vehicle inspection law which requires a mechanic to sign off that your vehicle is roadworthy. I've heard that mechanics use this as a way to extort repairs from people who go to the mechanic.

If the mechanic inspects your car and deems it unroadworthy, then you can't even drive it away from the mechanic to somewhere else to get a second opinion without breaking the law. So people have to pay up or pay hundreds of dollars to get it towed.

Pollution is an externality. So, looking at it from your perspective as a car owner, if you have a defective pollution system, it costs you money to repair it, while the cost to you for your emission is small to you.

Your post failed to include externalities and why we impose obligations on others and ourselves so that we all benefit.

On the other hand, I agree for defective are primarily at risk, although I would not want to be a passenger in your car.

On the other other hand, auto manufacturers have recall notices. I go to my garage for regular maintenance (oil, etc.) and they do a safety check as part of the service, and every year I go back to the dealer to make sure there aren't any recall issues to be addressed.

This post is about safety inspections. Whether emissions tests are beneficial is a separate question. Even though often linked in policy, they are separate tests with different goals.

I can see that there might be a compelling case for emissions tests. Unlike safety issues, there is no direct benefit to the car operator to fix the emissions system, and failures might go undetected forever. Plus a small percentage of cars can have a large impact on total emissions.

Still, I think evidence is needed to support emissions testing. Emissions systems have a very long life and low failure rate.

Kevin Lewis truly seems to be a major contributor to this web site.

Germany's inspection system (Tüv is the common term) is mandated every 2 years. but then. you are allowed to drive as fast as possible on certain stretches of the autobahn

Seems fair enough, to be honest. Of course, a typical Tüv takes about 45 minutes - it is not exactly superficial

In my anecdotal experience, safety inspections don't actually pick up safety problems. Such as when the brake system was nearly rusted out on my old Toyota pickup, but passed "safety inspections" with flying colors every year until the brakes entirely failed at 70 mph with traffic stopped 500 feet in front of me. (That was an exciting 5 seconds. So far, the closest I've come to death.)

I suppose that there are two questions you could ask once you've concluded safety inspections are useless: a) should we get rid of them or b) should we improve them.

When you claim that "annual automobile safety inspections do not increase safety," you cite a couple of journal articles that reach that conclusion, but leave out the fact that other researchers have reached opposite conclusions. The authors of the first paper you link to (Merrell/Poitras/Sutter), in fact, acknowledge and describe several studies reaching different conclusions. Naturally, Merrell, et. al., believe that their paper uses a superior methodology, so that their results should be preferred--but that's what everyone who publishes claims. IN short, Alex, you are presenting the issue as one that is settled, empirically, when it is not.

Can anyone cite the rule/law that discontinued safety inspections in DC? Asking for a friend.

The Atlanta area requires pollution inspections every year. With all the out of state cars and trucks that pass through Atlanta on their way to Florida and states west of Georgia, I'm sure the benefits are immense. >:-(

You can see it as congestion pricing. Higher driving costs reduce the number of vehicles on the road. This specific type of congestion pricing may reduce externalities as pollution. Other approaches to congestion pricing (a toll road) don't have any good extra features.

So, who is against a wasteful policy that reduces the number of vehicles on the road?

"Higher driving costs reduce the number of vehicles on the road"

I don't agree at all. It's a higher cost of owning a vehicle, not a higher cost of each mile driven. The change in ownership cost is going to be so marginal that the effect on overall number of vehicles to be totally insignificant. People will just be spending more of their money to own a car instead of going without one, in +99.99% of cases. It's effectively a regressive tax on those that drive - most heavily impacting low wage workers commuting by car.

Wait, wait, wait... You are saying that for decades the United States has had compulsory health checks but only for cars? With the justification that if a car fails it could be bad for society? Fascinating...

In my opinion it's always better to venture on the safe side with vehicle inspections as well as regulating emissions that generate good data moving forward to green energy vehicles.

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