WASHINGTON (Sept. 1, 2015) — The federal Department of Transportation (DOT) should establish a communication channel with states to convey relevant information to state safety inspection officials and respond to their questions, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study.
The agency said DOT officials reviewed its report on state vehicle inspections and agreed with GAO's recommendation.
In its study, GAO interviewed officials from 15 state vehicle safety inspection programs. It noted that one of guidelines of the DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to help states optimize the effectiveness of highway safety programs is that each state should have a program to periodically inspect all registered vehicles to reduce the number of vehicles with conditions that may contribute to crashes or increase the severity of crashes. However, GAO pointed out that the benefits and costs of such inspection programs are difficult to quantify.
GAO was asked to review these state programs and NHTSA's assistance to the states. State officials told GAO that inspections help identify vehicles with safety problems and result in repair or removal of unsafe vehicles from the roads. For example, Pennsylvania state data show that in 2014, more than 529,000 vehicles — about 20 percent of vehicles in the state — failed inspection and then underwent repairs to pass. However, nationwide, estimates derived from data collected by NHTSA show that vehicle component failure is a factor in only about 2 to 7 percent of crashes.
“Given this relatively small percentage as well as other factors — such as implementation or increased enforcement of state traffic safety laws — that could influence crash rates, it is difficult to determine the effect of inspection programs based on crash data,” GAO said.
Studies GAO reviewed and GAO's analysis of state data examined the effect of inspection programs on crash rates related to vehicle component failure, but showed no clear influence.
Many states do not directly track the costs of operating safety inspection programs because costs may be comingled with other inspection programs, such as emissions, GAO said.
Other findings of GAO's report include:
c State safety inspection program officials GAO interviewed primarily cited the oversight of inspection activities and paper-based data systems as challenges they have faced in operating vehicle safety inspection programs. For example, officials in 11 of the 15 states with programs GAO interviewed cited oversight efforts as a challenge, including ensuring that private inspection stations were conducting inspections consistent with program requirements, and officials in four of the 15 states also said that paper-based data systems can hinder oversight efforts. To address challenges, some states have taken actions such as implementing more stringent program rules and exploring the development of electronic data systems. Other states have eliminated their inspection programs altogether, GAO said.
c Program officials in all 15 states said that additional data from NHTSA — for example, information related to new vehicle safety technologies — would help in operating their programs. However, there is no designated channel for communication between NHTSA and program officials.
c Several state officials noted that they would like more information on new technologies, such as light-emitting diode (LED) brake lights. State officials also said that it is not clear whether or how to inspect new safety technologies, such as tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), required by NHTSA on new vehicles. Without information, states have implemented different inspection pass-fail criteria or chosen not to include new technologies in their inspections, potentially reducing the safety benefit of their programs.
NHTSA officials told GAO they have adopted a hands-off approach to state vehicle inspection programs because the agency devotes its resources primarily to areas that contribute more heavily to crashes, such as driver behavior. However, consistent with NHTSA's mission to assist states in implementing traffic safety programs, improving communication with state officials on vehicle safety issues could help these officials in operating their inspection programs, the GAO report said.