VIENNA, Virginia — Having recently moved to Virginia, in part to flee the wretched misgovernance of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, I did not expect to find a utopia of good, conservative, restrained government in Fairfax County.
Nevertheless, it was a rude awakening when I was forced to run a gauntlet of crony capitalism before I could legally operate my Toyota in the commonwealth.
Virginia requires all cars registered in the state to pass an annual 21-part safety inspection that has not been shown to make the roads safer and only exists because repair shops profit from the work. Such is the story of many regulations.
“Data show there is no connection between highway safety and these inspections,” former Gov. Ralph Northam said in 2019 when he proposed abolishing the inspection mandate. “That’s why 35 other states don’t have them.”
Experts and study results have varied, but Northam is right that there is no hard evidence that mandatory safety inspections improve highway safety. The main reason is that driver error or acts of God — rather than some broken car component — cause almost all accidents. Also, people have many opportunities to get faulty parts noticed and repaired besides these mandatory inspections.
The Government Accountability Office studied the question in 2015 and found that component failure probably caused 2% to 7% of all accidents, and there is no evidence showing how many of those could be prevented by annual inspections.
Yet Northam failed to repeal the annual inspection or even to shift it to every other year. Why? Because the auto repair shops who get business from the mandate lobbied to save it.
The inspection itself, at a state-mandated $20, is not lucrative for repair shops. But the repair shops know that forcing every car in Virginia through their inspection funnels tons of paid repairs to them. Today, I got a repair done on my 20-year-old Toyota Camry that no previous mechanics had identified as necessary. But because this same Virginia repair shop had failed the car on inspection for that flaw, I was required by law to get it fixed. This added, captive clientele for repair is why the industry values the mandatory annual inspections.
The Virginia Automotive Association led the lobbying push to save annual inspections, and other industry groups joined.
“Tire dealers and auto repair shops in Virginia recently scored a legislative victory in their fight to overturn a proposal that would do away with the state’s vehicle inspection program,” reported Modern Tire Dealer in early 2020. But that wasn’t all.
“We are still pushing hard to defeat all measures to move inspections to every other year,” said Steve Akridge, executive director of the Virginia Automotive Association. “And we will keep fighting until this is over.”
“Phone calls and emails from VAA members have been a big help, as legislators are clearly aware of our position,” Modern Tire Dealer quoted Akridge saying.
Industry groups united to launch a lobbying coalition called the “Virginia Coalition for Safe Vehicles,” publishing a website: KeepVirginiaRoadsSafe.org. The coalition was funded by the VAA, the Virginia Gasoline Marketers Council (the gas station lobby), Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, Virginia Independent Auto Dealers Association, the Auto Care Association, and NAPA AutoCare Center. Law enforcement lobbies joined in.
They won, so Virginia drivers still need to submit their cars for annual inspection.
One recent study found evidence that mandatory inspections could reduce accidents involving mechanical failure, but that study also found “there is no clear evidence of an increase in fatal crashes for the states without vehicle inspection.”
Any time you think of a regulation, you should ask yourself this question: Which vested interest is profiting off of this regulation? Then ask, Does this regulation exist for the safety of the public or for the profit of that special interest?