WASHINGTONThe U.S. 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 its recommendation.
In its study, the 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 inspect all registered vehicles periodically to reduce the number of vehicles with conditions that may contribute to crashes or increase the severity of crashes.
However, the GAO pointed out that the benefits and costs of such inspection programs are difficult to quantify.
The agency was asked to review these state programs and NHTSA's assistance to the states. State officials told the 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 vehiclesabout 20 percent of vehicles in the statefailed 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 factorssuch as implementation or increased enforcement of state traffic safety lawsthat could influence crash rates, it is difficult to determine the effect of inspection programs based on crash data, the GAO said.
Studies the GAO reviewed and the agency'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 track the costs of operating safety inspection programs directly because costs may be co-mingled with other inspection programs, such as emissions, the GAO said.
Other findings of the GAO's report include:
c State safety inspection program officials the 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 the 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, the GAO said.
c Program officials in all 15 states said that additional data from NHTSAfor example, information related to new vehicle safety technologieswould 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 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 the 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.