District car inspections might have ended, but grief has not

Cars move through the D.C. inspection station at Half Street SW for emissions tests, which cost $35.
Cars move through the D.C. inspection station at Half Street SW for emissions tests, which cost $35. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The District government is no longer checking to make sure your car's brakes, headlights and turn signals are in safe working order, but that does not mean the biannual rite of trudging down to the inspection station is a thing of the past. Your vehicle still must go through a federally mandated emissions test.

And just because the city cut a service that some consider vital, don't think that you get a discount or that the inspection station lines, which at times have snaked around the block, are automatically going to be shorter.

The $35 inspection charge is the same as before Oct. 1, when the city stopped conducting the 81-point safety inspection, which reviewed items including windshields, wipers and tires. And the queue at the Half Street SW inspection station can still stretch to an hour or more.

This year, the D.C. Council approved Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's proposal to scrap the test, making the District the first jurisdiction in the mid-Atlantic to do away with all safety inspections for most private vehicles. (Commercial vehicles, cabs and school buses will still require safety and emissions inspections.)

Officials said that the change will save $400,000 and that there was no clear evidence that the safety checks prevented accidents or traffic tie-ups. Nineteen states require safety inspections, down from more than 30 several decades ago, according to AAA.

"If there is not a clear case it achieves something, why are we burdening thousands and thousands of motorists?" council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) asked at the time.

But safety inspection advocates say that motorists still face essentially the same burden -- residents have to trek to Half Street just as frequently for the emissions test -- and that in the context of the city's $8.8 billion budget, the savings are relatively small.

Then there's the issue of safety. "Something as simple as a turn signal, which may be considered a hassle to fix, could be a matter of life and death," said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "A disabled car can cause everyone to be late. It can throw off an entire commute."

A study by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation this year found that "vehicle safety inspection programs appear to be a significant factor in lowering fatal crashes."

That is especially true during a recession, when people put off making repairs or buying new cars, Townsend said.

Last year in Washington, 35 percent of vehicles failed inspection, he said.

"There are much older vehicles on the road because of the recession, so it's imperative for us to know these cars are safe," he said.

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