For Your Safety and The Very Likely Marginal Safety of Others


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    I can’t remember ever doing a safety inspection. I’m fine with mandatory emissions testing if that is needed though. The only problem i’d see with optional safety testing to get a lower insurance premium is that people who don’t think their cars will pass inspection won’t do it. If its optional then those with complete junkers will opt to pay a bit more insurance although i’d guess they already have the minimum insurance allowed so they wouldn’t actually be saving much but they would get to drive their “death trap” all over the place. If someone is driving a car with a serious safety issue then they are already choosing to accept a risk over paying out some money.

    I think if safety is an issue then it shouldn’t be optional. If its just about saving money, then optional is fine.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      If something represents an actual hazard, I agree that private-side is insufficient. The reason I mention that insurance companies could be doing this and are not doing this is because, if it really prevented accidents and it were demonstrated to their satisfaction, they would likely be doing it. Especially if you are taking on insurance for yourself and passengers. That they aren’t suggests, to me, that the safety benefits are dubious in comparison to the costs.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I can’t imagine any common mechanical problems that safety checks would find. If someone has bad brakes they have a pretty strong incentive on their own to get them fixed. I would hazard a guess that cars were just a lot crappier 20, 30, 40 years ago so a yearly safety check might be more likely to find something.Report

      • Avatar Mo says:

        One of my safety inspections found a leaking strut. That most assuredly had a safety impact.Report

      • Avatar Mo says:

        And the thing is, I probably would not have known about it absent the inspection.Report

  2. Avatar Lyle says:

    While clearly the inspections in Queensland approach the standard I understand that is in place in germany, in many places they are much simpler. In Tx (outside areas where emission checks are needed) they check to see that all the lights are working, that the brakes and emergency brakes work, and the horn toots. So in the boonies its about $15. (But if you live in a county where emissions are check you can’t take your car to the boonies for inspection) Note in Tx if you buy a new car you get a 1 time 2 year inspection certificate, because they don’t expect these sorts of problems in a new car)Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      D’oh! I forgot to scrub the reference to Queenland. Always causes confusion when I do that. For the record, Queenland is an unspecified eastern state in the Pennsylvania-Maryland-WV-Virginia axis.

      Anyway, the cost of the test was minimal. It was having to address something that didn’t (IMHO) strictly need to be addressed that was expensive.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        … not really. Car costs about $6000 a year to own, right? Insurance, car payments, gasoline… Fixing that windshield couldn’t have been more than 10% of your yearly budget.Report

      • Avatar just me says:

        Except that most people with older cars are not making car payments. Might need to redo that $6000 a year figure. I just got a new car. Before that I hadn’t had a car payment in 10 years. All of my cars had been payed off long ago.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        You’d be hard pressed to get it down below $4000, no matter how old the car is. The older the car, the more repairs need to be done.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      Actually, the required inspection also covers seat belts and a number of other things. It’s mostly automated, but there’s about a ten minute car inspection.

      My beagle chewed through a front seat belt, and it wouldn’t pass inspection without replacement. I knew that ahead of time so I got it fixed.

      I suspect the most common ‘expensive’ safety issue is tires. Tires, even ‘cheap’ ones are expensive and if worn almost always need to be replaced in pairs at best.

      OTOH, worn tires are much more of an obvious safety hazard to others than minimally obstructed windshields.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Tires, absolutely. One thing I’m pleased to see coming along is tire pressure gauges in the displays. Proper tire inflation gives you better fuel mileage, too. I can’t be bothered to look it up just now, but I’d bet catastrophic tire failure is a leading cause of death and injury.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        tire pressure gauges in the displays

        The car I drive now is the first I’ve ever had with one, and while it’s very nice to have, I have to say, the indicator icon they chose ain’t great (though I’m not sure what would have worked better).

        Sure, I know what it means NOW, but the first time it showed up, I panicked.

        “What the hell is THAT? Calipers? A tuning fork?!”Report

      • Avatar Mo says:

        The annoying thing about the tire gauge thing is when we had out first major cold snap here, all four of my tires set off the under-inflated alarm.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        A cold snap ought to provoke you to check your tire pressure. Simple physics, cold air is denser than warm air.Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    I do not know this for fact, but I would guess that one of the major contributors to harm stems from tires.

    Living in Maine, where rust is a big problem, I also frequently see unibody cars that look like they’re about to snap in two. While I doubt this would actually happen driving down the road, were one of these rusty cars to get in an accident, the passengers would be at some seriously increased risk; these cars have no frame; the body is the frame.

    As someone who also has issues with oncoming headlights, I find the neon-purple lights some vehicles have a safety problem, they should not be allowed, and headlights that aren’t aimed properly a problem. Sometimes, safety isn’t about your car, it’s about what your car does to the people in other cars.

    I pretty much don’t have a problem with basic safety inspections. Because driving down the road in several-thousand pounds of metal and plastic is the single most dangerous thing I do. I have many friends who are first responders, and I think of them in this picture, too. It’s pretty difficult to ask them to risk exploding an air bag (and themselves) trying to cut you out of a car; that they might need to do this because you wanted to save a few bucks and didn’t replace your tires when they needed it is troublesome.

    Because it’s not all about you and your car. You share the road with others. And others clean up after our mistakes on the road.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      I agree the hyper bright lights some people are an issue. Especially on dark roads those things can be blinding and my night vision is fine. I know they really bug my wife whose night vision isn’t all that great.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I hate those lights with a passion. I remember seeing an ad on TV for headlights and lookie how bright they are. I didn’t want one of those lights. I wanted to throw a rock threw the windshield of the person selling them.

        It’s a little better for me personally now that I drive something higher off the ground, but the rage from the Ford Escort days is still there.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Because it’s not all about you and your car. You share the road with others. And others clean up after our mistakes on the road.

      Acknowledged. However, we should be able to demonstrate the costs of lack-of-inspection and right now we can’t really find any (for drivers and passengers, much less others). The safety benefits are theoretical, but the costs are real and are not evenly distributed.

      I support the notion that people should be driving in cars that have working breaks, tail lights, and so on. I even support people with busted tail lights getting pulled over. But even apart from basic safety concerns, inspections are a separate thing altogether. As a mechanism for discerning which cars are road-safe and which ones are not, it seems to me like a lot of cost for not a lot of benefit.

      Having moved from a state without inspections to one that has inspections, I feel approximately 0% safer on the road for it. For which is a minimum of $30 and fees, plus a couple hours out of my life.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        On a bit further thought, we do sort have a universal safety check in all states for things like broken lights: they are the cops who pull over people with a bad head or tail light.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        My wife’s old car got nicked in the tail light, which resulted in a slight displacement that blew out the tail light every time it rained. It was definitely our responsibility to get the tail light fixed every time until we figured out how to permanently fix it (clear duct tape!).

        It was cops, not a state safety inspector, who brought it to our attention.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @will-truman, while I can’t speak to your specific situation (meaning did the safety inspection fail to notice the problem), I strongly disagree.

        When I was reporting, I ended up spending a lot of time in court rooms; in some, the day was pissed away listening to people try to get out of fines from the cops pointing these things out. These people generally had sketchy vehicles because they were poor; they couldn’t afford to fix things, and all the cops did was add the layer of fine and increased insurance costs, setting them back even more.

        An honest inspection that requires these repairs, without the additional costs of fines and insurance, is far better.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Zic, in some places you can actually get out of the ticket simply by resolving the problem by the time of the court date. That may be a better approach. It still costs you an afternoon, but so can inspections. Alternately, you can start by just giving people a warning. Have the warning recorded and if they get caught again then they get a ticket. (As an aside, I think we need a formal warning and warning-tracking system, regardless of what we do with this. The cop who lets some speedy-kid off with a warning should know that the last three cops who pulled him over did the same.)

        I am honestly indifferent as to whether or not people caught with busted tail lights should get a ticket or a warning. I was glad not to have to pay a fine on the tail light (the inconvenience and stress of getting pulled over was punishment enough) but if we have to give people tickets to get their attention, I am okay with that too.

        Both strike me as being better than an inspection regime, if that’s what we’re concerned about. If someone’s car fails inspection, that means that they either have to get it repaired right away, which they may not have the money to do, or they keep driving at the risk of getting a ticket that I would expect to be more severe than the one they might get for the busted tail light.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Will, in all honesty, I’d take the justice system out of it and have the warning trigger an inspection. Repeat warnings trigger a ticket.

        There are better uses for courtrooms.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        Here in California if you got your shit together in time, it used to be you got out of paying the fine. Now, you still do, but there’s a $25 fix it ticket fee that you still have to pay.

        Having just spent a bit of time without a headlight following an accident (needed to pay for body work before a new headlight could be installed), I noticed something interesting:

        Here where I live in the poor suburb, I was never pulled over for the busted headlight. In the college town down the hill, I was pulled over three times in the same week. I think it’s down to the town’s demographics. A guy up here has a headlight out, the cops think “this guy probably can’t afford to get that fixed”, whereas the folks down by the college think “This guy’s rich parents can pay whatever ticket I write”.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        States with inspections have newer cars on the road (on the margins).Report

  4. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    An actually vehicle safety inspection is basically lights, horn, tires, brakes, windshield. In all cases, what is being looked for is items that affect the driver’s ability to safely operate (brakes work, windshield is clear in the driver’s field of view, etc.), and others ability to discern the presence & intentions of the driver (lights, signals, horn).

    A crack along the bottom of the windshield is worth a recommendation to get that fixed. A big starred crack in front of the driver is something that needs fixing now. Sadly, inspection schemes rarely make this distinction, defaulting instead to the idea (not wholly incorrect), that if they don’t demand it get fixed, it won’t & it’ll get worse. No exceptions for the times that it isn’t fixed because it’s the choice between a new windshield & food for the month.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Even if these are all things that affect a driver’s ability to safely operate a vehicle, it still should be demonstrated than an inspection is going to find these problems with sufficient frequency to justify the time and expense.

      You live in a state without safety inspections. How unsafe do you feel on the road because your state doesn’t have them? How much safer would you feel if you were in a state that did?Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Does it matter how unsafe he feels? Shouldn’t we instead determine the actual difference in aggregate safety?

        Statistics exist for a reason — and problems like the Monty Hall problem are famous for a reason — and that’s because human gut instincts don’t always work so well when it comes to probability and large numbers.

        Of course, actually determining cost effectiveness and safety increases would require studies and government spending. (And of course, the willingness to accept tradeoffs like ‘Do we want to allow leeway to cracked windshields? If so, is it placement, size, both? Or do we just want a simple room that doesn’t allow people to wiggle free of putting it off too long? Err on one side or the other?”)Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        It has been studied. Results vary, but nothing to give us a firm idea that they are remarkably effective. The NHTSA said the results on life and property were inconclusive. A result from Pennsylvania showed positive results (lives saved), others showed no effect. A lot of it is going to depend on methodology. In the absence of clear data, it’s going to rely on what we think and what we feel about it.

        I’d also say that there is significant incentive for insurance companies to investigate the matter. This sort of thing is right up the IIHS’s alley.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I worry much more about the person behind the wheel than I do about the mechanical integrity of the vehicle.

        Actually, when I see a person with a cracked windshield, or burned out lights, or noisy brakes, etc., I increase my distance from them. I go with the default assumption that a person who is willing to let such things slide may have other automobile related defects as well, such as being a crap driver. Not all signaling on the road is done with brake & turn signal lights.

        Keeping my distance hurts no one, improves my reaction time, & the other driver knows nothing of my snap opinion of them, so they can’t be offended much.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist makes a great point. It greatly concerns me that once someone passes a fairly easy test, usually in their late teens, they are granted a license for life. I remember when I took my driving test, I was relieved at how relatively easy it was (in NJ at the time, you didn’t even go out on a real road; the entire test was performed without any other vehicles moving around you). However, when I thought more about it, I realized it meant there were likely a lot of horrible drivers out there. Yikes.

        And at the risk of stereotyping and/or being prejudicial, most people’s skills deteriorate over time once they reach advance ages. Having people take a driving test every 10 years through age 50 or 60 and every 5 or 3 years after that seems wise.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Seat belt use. Ostensibly for your safety, actually for everyone else’s.

        First off, if you’re wanting to be “thrown clear” you’re an idiot and we can only hope some of your organs survive for someone who can use them. I had an ER friend who said that at least people who didn’t wear seat belts rarely required medical care, on account of being dead, but were often hard to find. One was 20 feet up a tree.

        Mostly, however, a seat belt is an awesome little device that keeps you in your seat so you can work the controls of your vehicle.

        I’m all for seat belt laws. Used to be iffy on them, but the longer I’ve been driving the more I’m pro-seat belt, because I know the morons I share the road with and they need ALL the help they can get not to kill me.

        Speaking of safety: Ever had the dubious pleasure of encountering the folks who are angry they’re not allowed to drive drunk? It’s like the Men’s Rights movement, only for drunk drivers. Or wannabe drunk drivers. Their arguments are basically lifted wholesale from libertarian and objectivist sources, cleansed of any ideological rigor, and thrown willy-nilly into the fray.

        Crazy folks.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I honestly have no problem with seat belt laws on a strictly nanny-basis (at least, giving people a ticket for not wearing them). It’s one of those issues where I am happy to say “Oh, wait, I’m not a Libertarian, so I can support seat belt laws on purely nanny grounds.”

        Ever had the dubious pleasure of encountering the folks who are angry they’re not allowed to drive drunk?

        In Montana, they get elected to the state legislature.

        More seriously, I’ve gotten pushback on the subject a couple of times. Basically arguing that drunk driving shouldn’t be illegal in and of itself because millions and millions of people do it all the time without adverse consequences and that we should instead focus on the people who actually have accidents while drunk behind the wheel.

        It actually has some logic behind it. But that’s certainly much farther down the trail than I am willing to do. I do think that some of our laws have gone too far, though, and support some reforms. So anyone looking to tag me as a society-hating anarchist can hang their hat on that!Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        @morat20 Yes, you are right, I forgot seat belts, for the very reasons you mentioned, in addition to keeping everyone else in the car in place in a collision. When I had the drunk hit me head some years back, I was very glad everyone was wearing seat belts. I’d hate to think of what would have happened had my sister in law seated behind me not been wearing hers. Not only would she have likely been killed, but her mass hitting my seat back would have done me no favors.

        Yeah, being an engineer made me a fan of seat belts. Nothing drives home the gruesome reality like being able to do the math.

        Oh, with regard to drunk drivers, as much as I loathe them, I worry that we’ve gone too far in our public campaign against them, much as we have with drugs. I also have a very hard time squaring up the public outrage with the seemingly lax punishments for repeat offenders. Something is very off with the whole state of affairs.Report

  5. Avatar JustRuss says:

    Regarding the exhaust, it’s not unlikely that it’s pretty rusted out after 20 years. I was once driving a borrowed car on the interstate when the exhaust pipe fell off. Wasn’t a big deal, but I can see how it might have been had things gone a little differently.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      That’s most likely the case. They said what they basically did was got a smaller pipe and inserted it into the larger pipe. Which suggests to me that the larger pipe probably had holes or something in it.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:


    It seems to me the question is less to inspect or not to inspect, but what to inspect. There is probably a frequency and form of inspection which does provide positive value. I don’t think zero inspections are appropriate because cars are highly complex machines that can also be highly dangerous. The vast majority of people can’t and shouldn’t be trusted to self-police. However, annual inspections that check a number of items unrelated to safety or emissions (which seems an equally acceptable purpose) are also sub-ideal. I had a car fail an inspection once because the button on the emergency brake handle was broken. The break still worked, you just had to jimmy it a little bit. But, it failed nonetheless. And this was in a state where the inspections were done by the government, so this wasn’t just some unscrupulous mechanic trying to milk me. A properly functioning emergency brake button (on an automatic car) is apparently necessary for safety.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Kazzy, well I think that there are two questions here. One, whether to inspect, and two, what we should inspect. The mere act of inspection represents not-insignificant cost in time and money in the aggregate. So that needs to be justified on its own. If that is justified, then we do get to the question of what should and should not be considered a part of the inspection.

      Having lived in states without any sort of inspection, it seems to me that life goes on just fine without them. So I’m not convinced that they’re necessary to begin with.

      A lot of people are bringing up tires. That sort of makes sense. If we’re going to have inspections, start there. But first start with the “if”.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I think some of the cost could be mitigated by shifting the frequency. Annual is probably too frequently. Especially if tires typically have a life span of multiple years.

        However, I agree that we should base our if/what/when/where to something that is data driven.

        My hunch is that the answer to “If” is “Yes”. But that is just a hunch.

        Regarding disparate impact on the poor, if safety inspections do provide some measure of safety, their abandonment likely shifts the human cost to the poor. People who can afford to perform regular maintenance on their car are likely going to catch things just by chance. But if the only time you bring your car into a mechanic is for an inspection and inspections are done away with, you risk relegating poor people to driving death traps. Which is probably why my hunch is to seek something in the middle. Often enough to prevent real safety issues; rare enough to avoid becoming too financially burdensome.

        Also of note: I assumed every state had mandatory inspections. Whoops!Report

  7. Avatar Damon says:

    When I moved to my current state, I was a minor, but I recall my Dad bitching about the saftey inspection. We had a headlight knob that was missing. It was just the shaft. Had to get that fixed. You could puncture your hand on that. Right…..If you’re that incompetetant, you shouldn’t be driving.

    More recently, during an emissions inspection, I had the guy tell me before the test even ran that I failed, “cause you see, the yellow light on the dash means there’s a problem.”. That’s correct too, but the inspector failed to correctly seal the gas cap when he checked for vapors so the car reads an emission failure and turns on the light. I told him he had to reseal the gas cap. It failed again and I reminded him that he had to turn off the ignition switch and retry.

    If I’d not gone through this exact same thing earlier, I’d have left, taken the car to the shop, and then had to come back, all because the inspector was 1) lazy 2) careless, 3) stupid, or all the above. Really? I pay for this BS?Report

  8. Avatar Reformed Republican says:

    Regarding the cracked windshield, many states require insurance companies to cover the repair of a cracked windshield. Of course, this sometimes leads to situations where the only way the shops can compete is to offer incentives like free steaks with a repair, since there is no longer any price competition.Report