The N.C. General Assembly’s program-evaluation division has just recommended an end to N.C.’s system of mandatory safety inspections and emissions tests for automobiles. If lawmakers actually implement the recommendation, it would earn program evaluators on Jones Street the undying admiration of motorists across the state. You’ll find me right up at the front of the line of well-wishers.
    The annual inspection racket has long been a sore spot for me, an example of the state using coercion to reward a targeted group of beneficiaries — garages and inspection stations — at the expense of the general public. While in theory it is not unreasonable to require motorists who traverse state roadways to keep their vehicles in safe working order, and to police the emission of dangerous pollutants into the air everyone breathes, in practice the public has derived little benefit in either case from the regulations.
    As the program evaluators discovered, there are not nearly enough instances of faulty equipment leading to catastrophic traffic accidents to merit imposing a costly annual mandate on all drivers. The vast majority of inspected cars never have a serious problem. Similarly, the vast majority of cars subject to the emissions test will never fail, while the older cars likely to have emission problems are precisely the ones exempted from testing because they lack the on-board computers required. As a result, the tests haven’t played a significant role in recent air-quality improvements in North Carolina or anywhere else.
    {mosimage}Back in 2003, our state became the first in the Southeast to get rid of its traditional tailpipe-testing regime. The evidence had become overwhelming that its costs outweighed its benefits. Unfortunately, North Carolina replaced it with the current computer-based system, also destined to deliver inadequate benefits.
B    ut hasn’t North Carolina’s air been getting cleaner? Yes, despite what you might hear from misguided environmental activists and the excitable reporters. However, this trend predates the current emissions tests. It largely has to do with the steady turnover of the automobile fleet, as North Carolinians trade in their older cars for newer ones.
    All too often, government policies are about going through the motions. They are designed to make people feel better (think airport security) or satisfy special interests at the expense of the public at large.
    The individual cost of wasteful spending or pointless regulations may be modest — a few dollars, sometimes just a few cents. But they add up, creating a significant burden across the economy. On the other side, the true benefits are highly concentrated on those who pocket the money, in this case the service stations that perform the state inspection tests and the state officials who oversee them. The beneficiaries have a strong incentive to protect the program, regardless of its efficacy. For them, actually, the program’s continued existence is efficacious.
    Regarding traffic safety, the state could increase the penalties for moving violations involving faulty equipment. As for auto emissions, older vehicles are more likely to be out of compliance, as are vehicles used for delivery and freight traffic. Studies show that just five percent of vehicles generate half of all harmful emissions, so you get far more bang for the buck with a targeted testing program rather than a sweeping one. Based on auto data already registered with the state, the Division of Motor Vehicles could identify such vehicles and give them incentives for tune-ups or other improvements. Sen. Charlie Albertson (D-Duplin) said it best: “This is a program that we need to take to the scrap yard and put on the junk pile.

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