News 2 I-Team: Car inspection program eyed to save lives, reduce traffic congestion, raise road money

The News 2 I-Team gets a look at what’s sharing the road with you.  Our camera crew found cars duct taped together and with tires on the brink of a blowout.

News 2 launched our latest investigation after automotive experts came to us saying people are being injured or even dying  because South Carolina doesn’t have any oversight of the thousands of cars running up and down our roads.

 

Calling for revival of the program

Car inspectors look at a variety of automobile features including the brakes, tires, lights, and check for frame damage in annual car inspections in other states.  Many states also require emissions tests to cut down on pollution.   South Carolina stopped doing those inspections in the 1990’s.

“As a father, I want to put my son in the safest car possible.   I tell him all the time, I'm not worried about you, I'm worried about other drivers,” Jason Scott, General Manager at Hendrick Toyota North, told the I-Team after giving a camera crew a tour of the trade-in lot in North Charleston.  He says he's more worried about “junk drivers” than drunk drivers.

The trade-in cars we found were missing key safety elements.  Several were rusted and many had loose bumpers.  One vehicle lacked headlights; the driver wired make-shift lights below the bumper.  In another, the seat belt broke; the driver sat on top of it.

Seeing the clunkers rolling down our roads daily has Scott worried, and he hopes lawmakers will reconsider a safety inspection program.

“We need to make sure that tire is going to stay on the road,” he said. “And when I hit the brakes, I'm not going sliding through an intersection.”

Lori Jo Harvey, General Manager with AAA, told the I-Team the inspections program could also save everyone headaches during the morning and evening commute.

“We want to avoid that surprise break down,” she explained.

 

Beating congestion, saving lives

The News 2 I-Team took a ride with the DOT's SHEP Team during the morning commute.  The SHEP team helps keep broken down cars out of traffic.  Blue truck drivers like Ted Wurthmann responded to more than 6, 000 disabled vehicles and emergency situations last year on Lowcountry main arteries like Interstates 26 and 526.  That's nearly 17 disabled cars and/or emergency situations every day.

“The most common tow-ins tends to be things that can be prevented,” Harvey said.

If more prevention measures were taken, advocates of inspection programs say your commute would be faster and safer.

National data isn't conclusive.

A report by Pennsylvania's DOT estimated 187 lives were saved every year because of their inspection program.   The report found states with vehicle safety inspection programs have significantly fewer fatal crashes than states without programs.

But New Jersey dropped safety inspections citing a "lack of conclusive data".

When the I-Team asked Majority Leader Representative Gary Simrill about the program, he told us safety now falls to law enforcement.

“The safety component now for cars in South Carolina deals with a patrol or officer seeing a car that looks like it’s not safe and then citing them,” he explained.

He told the I-Team the program wasn't successful in it's former life.

Through a records request to the state Department of Public Safety, we learned 5,275 people died on our roads in the last five years. In those deadly collisions, vehicle defects were a contributing factor in 2.5% of wrecks, which resulted in 132 deaths.

 

Improving our roads

Senator Sean M. Bennett says fees could help fund road improvements.

“Would it help, probably.  Would it solve our roads problem, no,” he explained to the I-Team.  Senator Bennett said he wouldn’t be surprised if the issue was raised this session.

There are 3,053,107 active driver's licenses in South Carolina.

There are 7,712,601 licensed drivers in North Carolina.  North Carolina’s emission and safety inspection program raked in 32.9 million dollars last year.  Of that, 27.2 million was spent on road improvements.

Senator Bennett says the legislature would have to consider the impact to people who can't afford the fees associated with annual car inspections.  Those fees vary from state to state.  He also worried about people who couldn’t afford regular maintenance.

“People that have issues with their cars are probably struggling to make ends meet as it is,” he said.

 

History of Inspections

The Automotive Service Association provided the I-Team with a history of car inspections in the US. Sates with inspection programs

In 1966, Congress passed the Highway Safety Act, which required the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to institute a uniform standard for mandatory state highway safety programs. One of the Dept. of Transporta­tion’s (DOT) standards was a requirement for states to conduct inspection programs.

By tying highway safety grant funds and federal construction funds to a state’s compliance with the programs, the DOT all but ensured across-the-board inspections. Congress later passed the Highway Safety Act of 1976, which revoked the DOT’s authority to withhold highway funds and provided that state safety programs could be approved without meeting all of NHTSA’s standards.

Following this act, 10 states disbanded their inspection programs altogether, and the number of inspection states has been on the decline ever since.

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