Editorial: Vehicle inspection requirement should be scrapped

December 23, 2018
File photo/The Herald-Dispatch Insufficient tread depth on a tire can cause a car to pickup truck to be taken off the road. Under present law, a mechanic measuring a tire's tread can fail a car at its annual state inspection.

West Virginians who own cars and pickup trucks dread two annual events. One is the payment of personal property taxes on their vehicles. It’s like paying sales tax on your car every year, even if it’s been paid off for years. That one tax can drive people to live in Ohio rather than here.

The personal property tax is not going away anytime soon. The other aggravation - the annual inspection - could again be up for debate in the Legislature.

State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, says he will introduce legislation to remove the requirement that all vehicles receive a safety inspection once a year. He and two other senators introduced a bill in 2017 to scrap the inspection requirement, but it died in committee. If he or another legislator re-introduces the bill, it needs a thorough debate, and it needs to be passed.

In theory, the annual inspection is a good idea. In practice, it can be a racket.

Do you have a small crack in the windshield near the driver’s line of sight? Are your brake pads acceptable but getting close to needing replacement? How about those tires? Or those windshield wipers?

Windshields, brakes and the rest are important for a car’s safety, but a dishonest mechanic or one who works in a shop whose owners push these things can declare a vehicle unfit to drive, leaving the owner at the mercy of the person who sells and installs them.

Many drivers have had bad experiences with this. That includes people moving into the state and who must have their vehicle inspected before it can be licensed.

It’s not that cars aren’t inspected every so often, regardless of the inspection law. If you take your car to a shop for an oil change, you can almost guarantee that its brakes, tires, exhaust and other systems will be examined to see if you need more work. That’s salesmanship. The difference is that if you’re not there for the inspection, the person changing your oil does not have the legal authority to declare your vehicle unsafe.

No one is suggesting that unsafe cars should be on the road. But how many accidents are caused by mechanical failures as opposed to driver error or road conditions? Not that many.

Some shops no longer perform inspections because they don’t make money if the vehicles are free of defects. Therefore, shops have financial incentives to sell services that aren’t necessary. In theory, customers could take their vehicles elsewhere, but usually they have work done by the mechanic who says work must be done to get a new sticker.

A while back there was a popular meme that asked why West Virginia requires drivers to have cars worth driving on its roads when the state does not provide roads fit for safe cars to drive on. That’s a good question, considering the deteriorating state of some roads and the poor engineering and design that went into others.

What is it the good book says? Physician, heal thyself.

West Virginia is among a minority of states that requires the annual safety inspection. If the system can’t be overhauled to provide consumers with more protection from dishonest repair shops, then the system should be scrapped.

If nothing else, mechanics should be forbidden from removing the existing sticker before an inspection, and the shop that does the inspection should be prohibited from providing repairs.

But why bother with even that? Blair is right. Just junk the whole thing.