When it comes to vehicle safety, more is generally seen as better.
Who could have foreseen a day when pickup trucks would come with air bags? Or that police could pull drivers over for failure to wear a seat belt? That computers could prevent cars from spinning, or call an ambulance in the event of a crash?
Those safety advances have done their work very well. In recent decades, the number of both accidents and vehicular fatalities has plummeted, even though far more cars crowd the roads, and helped to keep a lid on car insurance rates as well. The highway death rate in 2010 was 1.13 per 100 million miles traveled, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. That's one-fifth what it was in 1960.
In a seeming contradiction, not only are states in utter disagreement about whether to check vehicles for mechanical problems, but the country as a whole seems to be regressing.
State safety testing dates as far back as 1926, when Massachusetts launched inspections. In 1966 -- before rigorous federal crash testing and ubiquitous seat belt laws even existed -- the U.S. government told states that failure to run an inspection program could cost them highway funds. Most states complied.But since 1976, when the feds backed off, states have, too. Now, only about one-third of states require an annual or biennial check of a vehicle's brakes, tires, lights and other systems considered critical to a car's handling and visibility.
"NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) has shown very little interest in state safety inspection programs," says Bob Redding, a Washington, D.C., representative for the Automotive Service Association, a trade group that supports further research as well as mandated inspections.
So, have inspections been deemed irrelevant to road safety? And, if so, then why would some states still require that every worn tire and cracked windshield be replaced before a rig can legally hit the road?
"It's just budgetary concerns," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. "And long lines at the inspection stations. It's a hassle to go."
Despite what grumbling consumers may suspect, inspection programs often cost states money.
When legislators in New Jersey and Washington D.C. successfully eliminated mandatory inspections, in 2010 and 2009, they cited a desire to cut $12 million and $400,000 from their respective budgets. Even when private garages conducted the inspections, government agencies were required to oversee the program and investigate allegations of abuse.
Taxpayers pay additional direct costs: the $10 to $15 annual or biennial inspection fee, and the cost of needed repairs.
"The bottom line is that the safety impact information available to us is inconclusive and does not justify the nearly $12 million taxpayer expense of mechanical defect inspections, especially during his fiscal crisis," Raymond P. Martinez, administrator of New Jersey's motor vehicle commission, told his state's assembly.
Which came first, the defect or the crash?
Safety advocates say therein lies another problem: the lack of available research.
"To do a study, where you actually go out and look at individual vehicles to see if there's a defect that caused a crash that would have been caught by a safety inspection, is very expensive," says Ditlow.
The federal government has not addressed the issue in more than 20 years, and even then, results were mixed. The NHTSA says that it didn't find a "statistically significant" correlation between state inspections and a drop in fatal accidents.
NHTSA reports to state police leaders, however, say that its own studies "have identified vehicle defects as the sole cause of one out of every 43.4 fatal accidents studied," and as the contributor to "a much larger percentage of all collisions."
States wishing to conduct their own research lack data. Police typically don't investigate the mechanical condition of a vehicle, unless an accident has serious injuries or fatalities.
"We don't have good tools today to measure defects causing crashes," Ditlow says.
Motorists put off fixes
Pennsylvania decided to spend the money -- $114,000 for a consultant to analyze 40 years of literature on inspections and crunch national accident data. Its conclusion: Mandatory inspections prevented 127 to 169 vehicular fatalities every year in Pennsylvania alone.
Meanwhile, in neighboring New Jersey, a recent survey of gas stations revealed that since the state eliminated its inspection program drivers have been postponing repairs.
It's no surprise to mechanics, who say some people will always drive on weak brakes or tires rather than pay for repairs, particularly in a tough economy. The same people who seek out car insurance discounts for their air bags and stability control systems will peer for years through a cracked and starred windshield.
"We don't want to see cars go out of our shops that shouldn't be on the road," says Redding. "If they were just risking their own life and property value that would be one thing. But it's everybody else on the road, and people that ride with them."
Furthermore, modern safety upgrades like airbags and anti-lock brakes bear little relation to the loss of control that can be experienced when brake pads wear thin, or the crash that occurs because brake lights are out.
"Sure, cars are getting safer, but what state inspections pick up are defects related to maintenance and normal wear and tear," says Ditlow. "So it doesn't matter if the vehicle is safe in terms of crashworthiness if you have operational defects that could cause a crash."