State Sen. Bob Hall has filed a bill to do away with two programs that peeve millions of Texans: vehicle safety inspections and driver responsibility.
Both programs have their supporters and detractors. Even their defenders acknowledge the programs are deeply flawed. A bill to get rid of the Department of Public Safety’s inspection program passed easily in the Senate before stalling in the House in the 2017 legislative session. A bill by Hall to halt the driver responsibility program did not make it out of committee in that session.
But like many programs created with the best intentions, they generate revenue — nearly $420 million a year combined — that lawmakers depend upon when it’s time to balance the state budget.
Senate Bill 87 embodies Hall’s contention that the programs’ burden on citizens far outweighs their value in protecting public safety and accountability. How persuasive Hall is may depend upon two reports, one not published yet, that evaluate the cost of getting rid of them.
Michael Nowels, executive director of the Texas State Inspection Association, told The Texas Monitor he expects the study of the safety inspection program by the Department of Public Safety — the first ever evaluation done by the state — “will dispel every single argument that this program is a waste of time and money.”
Nowels said he hasn’t seen a final draft of the study, which is scheduled for release in about a month, but his organization has a huge stake in the continuation of the program. Nowels was among several association leaders who pressed to kill state Sen. Don Huffines SB 1588 to end the program in 2017.
But unless the Department of Public Safety takes a firmer hand in overseeing the program, making it much tougher for inspectors and vehicle owners to skirt the requirements, the program’s mission of public safety and improved air quality will continue to be a failure, Chris Murphy, president of the Texas Automotive Service Association, said.
Murphy, a longtime licensed inspector in the Dallas area, told The Texas Monitor he has always supported the goal of safety inspections. “If your goal is to collect money with a program that offers as little inconvenience as possible with as little cost as possible, then it’s a success. If the actual purpose of your program is clean air and safer roads, then it’s an utter failure.”
The Department of Public Safety oversees more than 19 million vehicle inspections every year, according to its data. There are roughly 13,000 automotive stations licensed by DPS to do vehicle inspections for safety and air quality in Texas.
Ten of the most urban counties in the state are required to do vehicle emissions tests based on federal Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards. Owners would still be required to have their vehicles tested for emissions if SB 87 passes.
The annual cost of the vehicle inspection program is more than $280 million. About $135 million of that total is paid to the inspection operators, $125 million is collected by the state and another roughly $20 million is collected in fees paid to the vendor, NICUSA Inc., the private company that provides the software connecting the inspection network to the state.
When the Texas Public Policy Foundation reviewed the program in 2016, it found that of every $23.75 collected for a two-year safety inspection, $10.75 went to the Texas Mobility Fund, $7 to the inspection station, $4 to the state’s Clean Air Fund and $2 in vendor fees.
The state has had a vehicle inspection in one form or another since 1951. But in the last 30 years at least, the state has never done a study to determine if that $280 million annual expenditure makes the state’s roads safer or the air better to breathe.
The evidence nationally suggests there is little proof the inspections do either. The most recent national study done by the Government Accountability Office in August of 2015 concluded, “According to officials GAO interviewed from 15 state vehicle safety inspection programs, these programs enhance vehicle safety. However, the benefits and costs of such programs are difficult to quantify.”
In January, the state of Utah became the latest to give up on its safety inspections. Just 15 states continue to require periodic inspections of passenger vehicles, according to the American Automobile Association.
Lawmakers in Oklahoma in 2001, the District of Columbia in 2009, New Jersey in 2010 and Mississippi in 2015 ended their programs when they couldn’t find evidence that their programs were effective.
North Carolina, spurred on by an investigation by the Charlotte News and Observer, that found the state’s inspection program ineffective, riddled with fraud and mismanagement, took a look. Their evaluation found no evidence that safety inspections are effective and that “it is not possible to determine how much vehicle emissions inspections contribute to the improvement of overall air quality.”
The North Carolina Legislature nonetheless saw fit to continue vehicle safety inspections.
Murphy said it has been long understood by inspection industry insiders and the DPS that the program has given rise to some unscrupulous behavior like emissions test rigging and exaggerating safety problems to secure expensive repair jobs..
Nowels said those problems are not that widespread, but he and Murphy agree the DPS’ commitment to rooting out bad actors needs strengthening. That might mean adding DPS enforcement personnel, a budget increase Nowels said he isn’t sure the legislature will support.
Huffines, the outgoing Republican state senator from Dallas whose bill laid the groundwork for SB 87, told The Texas Monitor he suspects any DPS report on vehicle inspections will advocate for continuing vehicle inspections.
“The DPS told us they’d lose 200 full-time positions if we got rid of it,” Huffines said. “It’s a job program for DPS. There is a built-in self interest.”
When The Texas Monitor contacted DPS to ask about the vehicle inspection and driver responsibility programs and the report, an unnamed spokesperson replied by email, “Both of those programs are legislatively mandated. Additionally, we do not discuss pending legislation.”
Like the vehicle inspection program, the Driver Responsibility Program hits low income people hardest, Huffines said.
Passed in 2003 to pressure drivers to pay their tickets for driving while intoxicated and driving without insurance, the program’s mandate of compounded fees and automatic driver’s license suspension has created a pool of at least 1.4 million people who cannot get their licenses back.
Hall is trying again in this session to end the program altogether, according to a Texas Tribune report this summer. However, the state’s 283 trauma centers depend on revenue from the driver responsibility program. Last year half of nearly $144 million generated by the program went to trauma centers, according to a January report by the Legislative Budget Board.
Recognizing the potential hit to a popular and needed service, Hall’s bill stipulates the lost trauma center funding would be replaced by an increase in vehicle replacement fees, Kathi Seay, his legislative and policy director, said.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].