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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE - Traffic moves on I-15 on a snowy morning in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

Of all the bills the 2017 Utah Legislature passed, only one seems to engender a strong and immediate negative response from people I engage in casual conversation.

What the heck were they thinking when they eliminated the need for vehicle safety inspections? Do they not care that we’re all going to die as the duct tape loses its sticky and parts start flying down I-15?

If the governor signs HB265, you won’t have to worry about fixing that cracked windshield, replacing those bald tires or fixing squeaky brakes the next time you renew your registration. Even worse, the other guy won’t have to worry about those things, and he or she may not be as responsible as you are.

Well …

If you’re a true free-market conservative, you recognize a public experiment to prove your principles when you see it, and this is it.

In fact, that is it, and that is the only thing. The free market carried the day at the Capitol, and it will be the way, years from now, to determine whether the principles work.

That doesn’t mean people didn’t try other means of persuasion. There were, for example, plenty of anecdotes flying around the Capitol as this bill advanced.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who is a Highway Patrol officer, told of responding to a fatal accident only to discover, upon further investigation, that the victim’s car had failed a Utah safety inspection because of bad brakes. Rather than fixing the problem, the owner had sold the car in Idaho, where no safety inspection is required. It had subsequently come back to Utah, where the unwitting new owner had died because he couldn’t stop.

Safety inspections save lives, Perry insisted, telling fellow lawmakers that 60,000 vehicles per year are rejected for safety concerns the first time they get inspected. Without inspections, catching all those problems would require a lot more troopers.

On the other side, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, offered this anecdote: His 2005 Silverado was rejected because the light bulb above its rear license plate wasn’t working. He replaced the bulb and, with tongue in cheek, assured fellow lawmakers, “I know it saved my life, and yours.”

No doubt more people can relate to McCay’s experience than to Perry’s.

Scholarly studies didn’t help much, either. One oft-cited study in Pennsylvania reported that states with safety requirements have fewer fatal accidents than those without. For his part, McCay brought to a committee hearing two BYU graduate students who had instead studied the number of fatal accidents attributable to mechanical failures in other states that eliminated inspections. They found virtually no difference before and after changes in those states’ laws.

The overwhelming majority of fatal accidents were caused by driver error, something lawmakers everywhere have tried, in vain, to eliminate through the years.

Nothing, however, was as persuasive as arguments about the free market. And as McCay argued, the market wants safety. New car dealers advertise it and surveys find customers value it, regardless of what government makes them do. Safety is profitable.

“Just because we don’t mandate something doesn’t mean that people won’t do it,” McCay said. “We don’t mandate that people change their oil, and yet they do it.”

Well, many people do, and when they change their oil, people find companies offering multi-point inspections that identify problems. By requiring safety inspections, the state is just forcing people to pay needlessly for something they probably already are getting. Only a suicidal fool would knowingly drive on failing brakes or without working headlights (which still, by the way, would be grounds for a citation), right?

27 comments on this story

This is one of those debates that will begin to sound quaint as the 21st century progresses. When self-driving vehicles take over, they will guide themselves to mechanic shops and automatically debit their owner’s bank accounts.

The Utah bill passed after compromises that added $1 to registration fees in order to pay for more Highway Patrol troopers, and that made the state’s primary seat belt law, set to expire next year, permanent.

Meanwhile, we will know soon enough whether Utah, which is joining 30-plus states that already have eliminated safety inspections, will break the trend and unleash carnage. Don’t count on it.