Federal oversight of state inspection/maintenance (I/M) programs-something long desired by auto service technicians-is highly unlikely to happen soon.
It's up to the repair industry itself to promote I/M programs, according to speakers at the Automotive Service Association's Washington meeting, held April 8-13 in Arlington.
Federally mandated safety inspections were one of the first and most heralded provisions of the Highway Safety Act when it was passed in 1966, according to Joey Syner, a highway safety specialist in the Office of Traffic Safety Programs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. At that time, states had to establish I/M and other safety programs or lose all their federal highway safety money and 10 percent of their highway construction money.
But in the mid-1970s, three states sued NHTSA, unhappy specifically about mandated motorcycle helmet laws, Mr. Syner said. The courts agreed and turned not only motorcycle helmet but also I/M rules into guidelines rather than mandates. And that's where the matter has stood for a quarter of a century, he said.
``We're happy to help states set up safety inspection programs, but we can't go into states and say they must do it,'' he said.
In recent years, states have been much more inclined to drop inspection programs than establish them, according to Philip Recht, a Los Angeles attorney and former deputy administrator and chief counsel of NHTSA under President Clinton.
At I/M's peak, 45 states had some form of vehicle inspection rules on their books, Mr. Recht said. Now, only 18 states and the District of Columbia mandate periodic safety inspections every one or two years, with maybe a half-dozen more states conducting either random or occasional inspections, such as when the vehicle is sold or transferred.
``Vehicle inspections have dropped off NHTSA's priority list,'' he said. ``It's something NHTSA works on, but I was there five years, and it was not on our radar screen.''
Part of the problem is that it would take an act of Congress to make I/M programs a federal mandate again. That will happen, Mr. Recht said, only if there is clear support from the public or the executive branch-or if there is clear evidence that I/M programs are necessary.
``This is a Republican administration, and Republican administrations are opposed to more federal mandates,'' he said. Furthermore, he added, the studies on I/M programs up to now provide no unequivocal data proving that they work, despite the anecdotal evidence every auto technician sees every day.
Lori Cohen, program director of the Vehicle Safety Inspection Committee within the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, noted studies on what happened in Arkansas and Oklahoma after they dropped their I/M programs.
Arkansas got rid of safety inspections in 1994, and the number of fatal accidents in the state grew 8 percent between 1994 and 1997, Ms. Cohen noted. But Oklahoma ended inspections in 1999, and fatal highway accidents dropped 10 percent there between 1998 and 2000. ``We don't know why this was the case,'' she said. ``Maybe there's something going on in Arkansas that's adding to fatal crashes.''
One problem with the studies, Ms. Cohen noted, is that they record only highway accident fatalities-the only thing for which there is a national database. Another is that police aren't always thorough in their accident reports. ``If a fatal accident was caused by bald tires on a rainy night, the police report may simply say, `Due to rain,''' she said.
Larry Hecker of the Bethesda, Md.-based Motorist Assurance Program, said he hoped future studies of I/M effectiveness could evaluate property-damage accidents instead of fatal accidents.
``If fatalities continue to be the crux of inspection programs, we as an industry will have a tough time (proving their value),'' Mr. Hecker said. ``Cars have become safer, and that's great. But if we want to prove the need for safety inspections, that's not the way to go.''