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Amid national controversy about whether state car-safety inspections are worthwhile, a legislator is looking at possible elimination of Utah's program.
"Right now, I am still just gathering data," said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who has opened a bill file to work on legislation that may eliminate or tweak the inspection program. Utah has had safety inspections since 1936.
"I'm hearing from a lot of people," he said, "that the current structure of safety inspections is particularly burdensome on low-income people" because older cars they own must be inspected more often.
Utah requires $15 inspections in the fourth year of a car's life, the eighth year, the 10th year and annually thereafter. That was a compromise enacted in 2012 when then-Rep. John Dougall (now the state auditor) attempted to end Utah's program, which then was biennial through the eighth year, with annual checks thereafter.
"If you think about the kind of people who own 10-year-old cars [when annual inspections are required]," Thurston said, "those tend to be lower-income people."
Actually, state records show the average registered car in Utah is 10 years old. Trucks are 11 years old. Carmakers and others say people are keeping vehicles longer because new cars are expensive and better-made autos have a much longer life.
Thurston said that most equipment problems that contribute to crashes are with tires and brakes, and such problems "are not related to the age of the vehicle. Once you get beyond two or three years, brakes and tires wear out whenever they wear out. ... It depends on what tires and brakes you buy and how far you drive."
Some studies question whether inspections increase safety and just 16 states now require them, down from 31 in the mid-1970s.
"When other states looked at them recently, they decided to get rid of them," Thurston said, while Utah simply decreased how frequently they must occur.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress, issued a recent report saying it can find no definitive evidence that mandatory inspection programs reduce accidents, noting crash rates are about the same in states that have them as in those that do not.
But it said states with those programs find and correct all sorts of safety problems.
For example, the GAO report said Utah in 2014 reported 47,172 failed inspections just for "problems for glass," which it said included "glass that is broken, missing, shattered or jagged," or had "issues with tinting, wipers/washer and mirrors."
The GAO said any effect of inspections on safety is hard to measure because of a lack of national data on crashes and because police have little time to investigate whether safety problems contributed to an accident.
By far the biggest cause of crashes is "the human factor," Thurston said, referring to such things as distracted driving, speeding and not wearing seat belts. When Dougall proposed in 2012 to get rid of the safety-inspection program, he wanted to tap money saved to help hire more Utah Highway Patrol officers to better enforce driving laws.
Such a funding shift is something Thurston said he may consider, but hasn't yet gotten that far.
In 2012, service stations and other businesses that perform inspections joined the Department of Public Safety (including the Highway Patrol) in opposing repeal of the inspection law.
Dwayne Baird, spokesman for the department, said it will wait to see what Thurston proposes before taking any stand. Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason said his agency has no position because studies do not clearly show whether inspections contribute to highway safety.
D.J. Griffin, chief financial officer of Griffin Fast Lube, which fought eliminating inspections in 2012, said he believes inspections are beneficial, but it may be a good time to examine how effective they are.
"Obviously we have a dog in the race, and inspections do bring cars to our locations. That's a good thing for us," he said. His company operates Jiffy Lube franchises in Weber, Box Elder and Cache counties, and in Colorado and Nevada.
"But we do want to do what's right for the people, and do business in the way it is expected," he added. "It's probably time to look at it, and we should review it and see what things are good and bad. ... I'd be willing to have those conversations."
But he said inspections have value and "promote" public attention to safety. "We're all busy, and sometimes it's just nice to have someone say, 'I saw this or that, have you thought of fixing it?' "
Inspections lead many people to fix problems they otherwise may let slide, he said.
Thurston said if Utah eliminates its formal program, he sees the possibility of mechanics still offering cheap inspections without a mandate. "I could see them saying, 'You have to come in for emissions [inspections] anyway, so you might as well have us give your car a once-over for $15. Why not?"
Thurston expects plenty of debate, especially because data are unclear about the benefits of inspections. "This might be one of those two- or three-year projects," he said, "because it's taking a while to get reliable data and actually understand what's going on."