Fiscal Crisis Quietly Claims Another Program: Auto Safety Inspections

Tom Johnson | June 30, 2010
But critics say that the legislative measure, combined with a provision easing emissions testing, could worsen NJ's air pollution problems

It didn’t get much attention given the dire fiscal crisis facing New Jersey, but one of the budget-saving measures winning final legislative approval this week was a bill eliminating the state’s seven-decade-old mandate requiring motorists to have their vehicles undergo safety inspections.

Not everyone is happy about the outcome.

Some environmentalists worry eliminating safety inspections might exacerbate New Jersey’s air pollution problems. AAA of North Jersey argues there are just too many drivers on the state’s roads to do away with safety inspections. And private inspection stations are unhappy about a provision easing emissions-testing requirements, since they just forked over more than $8,500 apiece for new emission-testing equipment.

Christie administration officials downplay the significance of eliminating safety inspections, saying numerous studies are inconclusive as to their value, especially since only 6 percent of the 1.9 million vehicles inspected at the centralized lanes failed for serious safety violations, such as brake and tire problems, according to Mike Horan, a spokesman for the Motor Vehicles Commission.

“When you’re facing one of the worst fiscal crises, we can’t justify continuing doing the inspections,” said Horan. The administration projects it will save just under $12 million by eliminating safety inspections and another $5.9 million by upping by one year — to five years — the initial emission test for new cars.

Environmentalists Concerned About Impact

The elimination of the safety inspection ends a requirement that began in 1938 when New Jersey first began examining vehicles for safety violations. It began its auto emissions testing program in the mid-1970s.

The moves were criticized by Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. In a state that has never complied with federal Clean Air requirements for ground-level ozone, Tittel argued it makes little sense to relax inspection requirements of any kind. The state has continuously lengthened the timeframe for a vehicle’s initial emissions testing from what was originally two years to what will now be five years.

Emissions from mobile sources — cars, trucks, and buses — constitute the biggest source of air pollution in New Jersey, which this year has already matched the number of violations of federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone as the entire year of 2009.

Environmentalists also fear cutbacks in mass transit subsidies will put more people on the roads and further contribute to the problem. There has been a six percent drop in ridership since the fare hikes went into effect, according to Tittle.

State policy should encourage low-polluting and efficiently running cars, he argues.

“When people are facing a deadline to inspect their cars, they usually take it to their local mechanic, get a tune-up, the oil changed, and tires inflated, at the least,” Tittle said. “All of this makes the car run cleaner and more efficiently so you are polluting less and using less energy.”

Stephen Rajczyk, public and government affairs manager of AAA of North Jersey, said the arguments have some validity.

“For a lot of people, it seems to be the only time they do maintenance on their vehicle,” Rajcyzk said. “As far as safety goes, we are not at all in favor of doing away with the inspections, especially since New Jersey is such a densely populated and heavily travelled state.”

Costs Outweigh Benefits?

For the National Motorists Association, however, the move fulfills, at least somewhat, a long campaign to end inspections of all kinds.

“None of this stuff does any good,” said Stephen Carellas, the longtime director of government affairs for the New Jersey chapter. “There’s more cost than benefits. In these inspections, they don’t even do the kinds of things you would expect your mechanic to do when you take your car in for maintenance.”

Both Carrellas and Horan disputed any assertion that doing away with safety inspections and extending the waiver on getting new cars emission-tested would worsen the state’s air pollution problems.

“We don’t believe it to be true,” Horan said. “We’re talking about cars today that are much cleaner and efficient than what vehicles used to be.”

Sal Risalvato, executive director of the NJ Gasoline-C-Store Automotive Association, which represents garage owners who do private inspection stations, is furious about the move. His members had to pay for new emissions-testing equipment last year to be able to continue to perform inspections, Risalvato said. Now, it will take them longer to get a return on their investment with the changes in the program, he said. After the initial inspection, cars still have to be emissions-tested every two years.

The state also faces the need to renegotiate a contract with the Parson Corp., which runs the centralized inspection program under a five-year, $276 million contract. Horan said the state has begun negotiations with the contractor.

Under the bill approved by both houses, provisions are supposed to take effect July 1, but the motor vehicle agency has 30 days to implement its mandate. “We will be making an announcement soon,” Horan said.