N.C. auto inspection system is sham; fix it

We won't say that state auto inspections are unnecessary. Staunch supporters include the safety-conscious N.C. Highway Patrol and AAA Carolinas. But we will say - based on an investigation by this newspaper and The (Raleigh) News & Observer - that North Carolina's inspection system provides no proof or assurance that such inspections are needed or helpful.

In fact, the N.C. system is so mired in corruption - bribery, cheating, falsifying documents - that the auto inspection process has become a sham. It is providing a false sense of safety to the millions of North Carolinians who drive. These disturbing findings should prod state policymakers to give the auto inspection system an overhaul immediately.

Officials don't have to look far for recommendations. In 2008, the N.C. legislature's watchdog agency - the N.C. Program Evaluation Division - examined the program and found that inspectors performed inconsistent work with inadequate state enforcement. The watchdog agency recommended eliminating safety inspections or exempting newer cars from safety and emissions tests because they rarely fail.

Proponents of eliminating inspections cite the fact that all but 17 states no longer do them because of studies that show safety checks do little to improve highway safety. A 2009 Pennsylvania study, however, did show a safety value for inspections. It found fewer fatal crashes involving vehicle failures in states with inspection programs that those without. But the higher numbers of fatal crashes were for vehicles three years old and older.

Given Pennsylvania's findings and some experts who say owners of older vehicles are more likely to ignore auto maintenance and allow problem vehicles to stay in service during a struggling economy, exempting newer cars and trucks from state-mandated auto inspections is a good step. State Sen. Stan Bingham, a Davidson County Republican who last spring had recommended exempting newer vehicles, is right to push for it again.

But that's not the only change needed. Right now, the N.C. program is a waste of time and money. Motorists spend $106 million a year on inspection fees. The private garages that perform the auto inspections rake in about $99 million. The investigation by the Observer and the N&O showed rampant fraud by workers at several of those garages - some gouging customers with unnecessary services and others taking bribes to falsify results to pass vehicles that actually fail. And the state provides insufficient oversight to prevent or curtail such practices. Even when cheaters get caught, a long appeals process guarantees they can stay in business and continue to cheat for years.

More rigorous state monitoring is critical for there to be any faith in the inspections system. The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles has already started cracking down on inspection sites and employees suspected of cheating. That's good. Officials say they would be greatly aided by a more efficient data collection system. They should push for it.

Because auto inspections are a multimillion-dollar business, there are a lot of people who want to protect the status quo. But influence should not be allowed to hold sway. This sham of a system needs to be fixed. State officials need to get to it.