By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The District is ending its safety inspection program for most private cars Oct 1., leading some people to worry that area roads will soon be flooded with unsafe cars that could cause more accidents.
Emissions inspections will still be required every two years for all cars and trucks, as required by federal regulations, but motor vehicles that are not used for commercial purposes will no longer have to prove that they are road-worthy.
The Fenty administration and the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles persuaded the D.C. Council to approve the change this year as a way to save $400,000. In addition to helping to balance the budget, officials said, the change will relieve motorists of some of the hassle of owning a car in the District.
But safety advocates and the city mechanics who do inspections question the wisdom of the new policy in a community where they say thousands of residents fail to properly maintain their automobiles.
"You have an entire generation that is woefully unaware of when a car has real problems," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, who said 35 percent of inspected vehicles failed inspection last year in the District. "It's not only about unsafe roads in the District, but Maryland and Virginia as well."
The new policy will make the District the first jurisdiction in the mid-Atlantic region to drop all safety inspections for most private vehicles.
In Virginia, vehicles are required to pass inspection every year. Maryland does not have annual inspections, but used vehicles are supposed to be inspected before they are sold or transferred.
D.C. officials said that only about 20 states have inspection programs and that there is no evidence that routine inspections make District vehicles less accident-prone.
"It's a really burdensome requirement on drivers that has no effect," said Lucinda M. Babers, director of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
News of the change surprised some motorists who were waiting to have their vehicles inspected Monday at the inspection station on Half Street SW. Although many said they dread the biennial trip to the inspection station, they wondered how the city will ferret out faulty vehicles without the inspections.
"I prefer not to come here, but I sure do like to know about my vehicle and what needs to be done," said Sharnice Jones, 32, of Northeast Washington.
In the District, vehicles that go through a DMV inspection are checked for about 81 safety issues, including missing seat belts, balding tires, worn brakes, cracked windshields and inoperable lights. After Oct. 1, only commercial vehicles, such as delivery trucks, taxicabs and buses, will have to pass inspection.
As states look for ways to balance their budgets, there is a considerable debate about whether such safety inspections are needed.
Last year, a North Carolina legislative committee concluded that residents spend $141 million on annual inspections even though there is no evidence that the program is effective. The D.C. Council used the North Carolina study and a local DMV report to justify the policy change sought by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). A 2005 DMV report "clearly showed there was not a positive effect of safety inspections on traffic safety" in the city, according to council records.
"If there is not a clear case it achieves something, why are we burdening thousands and thousand of motorists?" asked council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee.
But the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation concluded in March that "vehicle safety inspection programs appear to be a significant factor in lowering fatal crashes." Comparing states with and without inspection programs, "Pennsylvania can be expected to have between 115 and 169 fewer fatal crashes each year, corresponding to between 127 and187 fewer fatalities," because it requires inspections, the report concluded.
At the inspection station in Southwest, several mechanics raised concerns, although they declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak for the DMV.
The inspection "is a process that protects everybody," one employee said. "We see what everyone else doesn't see."
Another employee predicted that the changes "will take a life" because he sees "lots of unsafe vehicles everyday."
Some vehicle owners were thrilled to learn that they will have to return only for emissions testing. But expressing an often repeated opinion, Carlos Brizuela, 26, of Columbia Heights said the new policy "doesn't make any sense."
"For new cars, it might be all right, but what about all the people with old cars?" Brizuela asked.