LACONIA — There’s no evidence New Hampshire motorists are safer because the state mandates that vehicles undergo a yearly safety inspection, says a state representative who is preparing legislation to ease that requirement.
Rep. Casey Conley says under his proposal, a yearly computer check would still be required to make sure a vehicle’s emission system was operating properly, but safety items like brakes, tires and lights would not have to be examined.
“New Hampshire is in the minority of states that have these safety inspections,” the Dover Democrat said in a telephone interview.
A 2015 report of the U.S. General Accounting Office said 16 states required annual safety inspections. New Hampshire was the only state among the 16 that did not participate in the GAO study.
The report said any safety benefit of the inspections is hard to quantify. While inspections do find vehicle problems, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows component failure is a factor in only about 2 to 7 percent of crashes.
Officials of 11 of the 15 states that participated said program oversight was a problem. One official said it can be a challenge to ensure stations do not make unneeded repairs, and another said it was a challenge to ensure stations do not intentionally pass vehicles that should have failed the inspection.
Conley said he hopes to gain bipartisan support for his bill, but he expects opposition from businesses and people who sell and service vehicles.
“The current inspection regime hits lower income residents the hardest and the overall benefit of the safety inspection is unclear or are hard to prove, considering states in the Midwest with similar demographics and weather have similar or better crash data statistics,” Conley said. “That suggests to me that the inspection in and of itself in NH is not a significant contributor to road safety.”
The state has an agreement with the federal government requiring testing of emissions, and such testing needs to continue to ensure vehicles are not causing excess pollution, he said.
Conley said one-third of vehicles fail their inspections during the first attempt. Also, federal vehicles are exempt from inspections, and vehicles visiting from other states may not have had inspections.
“So in effect, we have between 33 and 50 percent of cars on our roads at any given time that would fail inspections or are uninspected,” he said. “Despite this, NH remains one of the safest states for motorists, so you have to wonder what value the safety inspection is adding, and at what cost.”
Daniel Goodman, a spokesman for AAA Northern New England, said his organization supports annual safety inspections.
“These inspections are intended to detect mechanical and safety defects that, if left uncorrected, could cause or contribute to the cause of a traffic crash,” he said. “Ensuring all the clunkers and risky cars are off the roads keeps the driving public safer.
“Vehicle inspections are a great value. Automotive technicians can detect mechanical and safety defects before most motorists experience them, as all too often vehicle maintenance falls through the cracks of daily and monthly routines.”
Peter McNamara, president of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association, has said vehicle safety inspections protect the public.
"According to the 2017 DMV statistics, over 54,720 cars failed for bad tires," he said. "To pass, tire tread depth must be at least the thickness of a penny. Over 81,905 vehicles failed for inadequate brakes. To pass, a brake pad must be at least 1/16th of an inch thick to provide proper stopping power. When over 16 percent of the vehicles inspected are reported as failed, it is pretty obvious why annual inspections are needed. If we didn’t have such inspection laws, these unsafe vehicles would be left traveling the roadways.”
Conley said sometimes a consumer may question whether the repairs required to pass a safety inspection are really needed.
“Most auto mechanics are ethical, but there are some who are not, and you generally don’t know who they are,” he said. “As a consumer you are left not knowing if the repairs that are recommended are actually needed.”
The cost of an inspection is usually under $50, unless additional work is required, such as replacing tires with low tread or repairing the brakes.
The inspection is required to include steering, front end and suspension, brakes, odometer and speedometer, electrical system, horn, defroster, lights including headlight aim, glass, wipers, exhaust systems, on-board diagnostics, body, fuel system, tires and wheels.
Troop G’s audit
State Police Troop G did an audit of 55 inspection stations in Belknap County between July 9-11 and found multiple violations of requirements under the inspection systems. Such audits are performed statewide, but they are not aggregated into a report that examines how the system is performing, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
A public records request revealed details of the infractions found by Troop G.
Stations had dozens of missing sticker backers, which are used when a mechanic places an inspection sticker on a car. The backer combines with a document printed by the station to form the sticker that shows the vehicle has passed inspection. Every sticker backer must be accounted for because they can be used to falsify that a car passed inspection when it hasn't.
Several stations did not do the headlight aiming part of the inspection.
Some lacked required tools — including, in one case, a brake pad gauge — or access to information on manufacturer specifications.
A report on one inspection station said 11 inspection stickers were missing. It provided a narrative:
“While looking at the required tools, I noticed that the headlight aiming tool had dust and spider webs from the wheels to the floor where it was sitting. I asked the manager when it was supposed to be used and he informed me ‘on every vehicle.’ I asked him if it had been used on the inspection earlier today and he said, ‘No.’ He advised it does not get used on every vehicle like it should.”
Fines are possible if a station does not remedy violations. Missing sticker backers are supposed to be reported to the police.
Last year, state legislation to reduce the requirement for inspections to every other year failed to pass. Another bill that didn’t gain traction would have allowed people who buy a new car to skip inspections for the first three years.
Rep. Charlie St. Clair, D-Laconia, said people tend to get their cars fixed even if safety inspections are not required.
He also said there’s a business motive to leave the law unchanged.
“But there has to be a way to make it more user friendly for citizens,” St. Clair said. “The cars being built today are not the cars we had even 15 years ago.”
There are also legal requirements to maintain one’s car.
“You can’t drive around the highway with a light out or on bald tires and not run the risk of being stopped by a police officer and get a warning and have to get it fixed,” he said.
“My constituents, other than people who perform inspections, came out quite strongly last time around. They supported the idea of no inspections or every other year inspections.”
He predicted a hard fight against entrenched business interests to leave the law unchanged.
“The lobbyists for the auto dealers in the state come out full force against this,” he said.
According to FollowTheMoney.org, a website of the National Institute of Money in Politics, the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association made $490,000 in campaign contributions over the last 21 years, about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Many who responded to a Laconia Daily Sun Facebook question said they supported yearly inspections for safety reasons.
"I don't oppose at all," said Nancy Devan. "With all the 'rent a wrecks' on the road, it protects others as we drive. I've been behind vehicles with bumpers, mufflers, exhaust systems literally hanging off. I try to avoid so as not to be hit/hurt from flying debris."
Others said the requirement made no sense on new cars, and some objected to the mandate entirely.
"Biggest scam on car owners," said Ann Marie Banfield. "I never lived in a state that did this until we moved to NH."