I returned to the Philly area last summer after spending 30 years in Alaska, and I'm getting reacquainted with the folkways and foibles of life in a more civilized part of the world.
Like the way Pennsylvania does car safety inspections.
Inspecting cars for safety was a Bolshevik concept in libertarian Alaska. If you wanted to keep driving a one-eyed monster that had a bad night in a weekend demolition derby, the state didn't care. You could get your renewal tags and be on your way. The state would no sooner check cars for safety than check your sled-dog team for worms. The cops might write you a ticket for some obvious safety violation, but they were usually busy chasing real criminals.
So coming here, I thought, "Hey, it's probably not so bad, living in a place that makes sure the cars we drive are safe."
Until it was time to get my car inspected, that is.
I was a little surprised you don't go to an independent inspection place that has no financial interest in making you get repairs you might not actually need. (I grew up in Delaware, where the state ran its own inspection stations.)
The shop told me my car, not even two years old, with barely 20,000 miles on it, needed a new tire to pass inspection. With radials, you can't replace just one, so I would need four new ones. Even buying the latest cheapo tires from China, where they were probably produced with slave labor, I was going to be out about $500.
I asked the shop supervisor to show me what the problem was. The tire still obviously had lots of tread. He spun it around and around, looking a bit perplexed himself, until he found a spot where the tread on the outside edge was allegedly just 1/32 of an inch deep. Pointing, he said, "See, you got to have 2/32 to pass."
Another tire had a slow leak that was supposedly irreparable, so I went ahead and got the new tires. Oddly enough, I was not provided any paperwork documenting the shop's hawkeyed analysis of my tire tread until I insisted on it.
I was still feeling bugged, so I kept the tire that flunked. A few weeks later, I rooted around and found out how to contact a state inspection referee.
That was a pointless exercise. Too late, the tire was off the car, he said, very nicely and with what seemed like sincere regret. He suggested I get my own tread measuring gizmo and see for myself, or take it to another tire place and see what they said.
My experience got me to thinking: Sure, annual safety inspections must prevent some accidents and make the roads safer for everybody. But how many accidents are prevented and at what cost to drivers? I studied economics in college: What's the cost-benefit ratio here?
The state had a consultant look at that very question in 2009. After spending $114,000 of the state's money, the consultant found, not surprisingly, that the benefits of the program definitely exceeded the cost.
The study massaged Pennsylvania's statistics in various ways and found problems with safety studies in other states. The conclusion: Pennsylvania's safety inspections save 127 to 187 lives a year. With actuaries valuing a life at $5.8 million, the benefits were easily greater than the costs.
It was a nice example of Enron-style accounting: The study didn't count the cost of repairs you're forced to make. The only "costs" were the price of the inspection itself, plus about $17 for the time each driver spends on the hassle of inspections.
New Jersey eliminated its state-run safety inspection program last year to save money. Only 19 other states still have any kind of safety inspections, and only 11 other states require them annually. Delaware mandates independent, state-run inspections every two years, and newer cars are exempt.
I could live with Delaware's system. And I wouldn't be as bugged with Pennsylvania's if I knew the state was vigorously checking for fraud. New York does at least one undercover inspection of every private inspection station each year. Pennsylvania doesn't do any.
All told, I'm glad I didn't live in Pennsylvania before 1981, when safety inspections were required twice a year. Talk about burdensome government regulation.
I find it curious that the local tea-party types aren't in an antigovernment lather about all this. A government that can force you to get a safety inspection of your car every year is a government that can do any manner of outrageous things to usurp your freedom. It could, oh, I don't know, force you to carry health insurance, or charge an extra 50 cents on your supersized soda because all that sugar makes you fat. Someday it might even force you to go to the doctor every year for a checkup, and then get every test and procedure the doctor says you need before you can get your driver's license renewed.
So how about it, tea-party folks? If you care so much about losing your money and freedom to an oppressive government, isn't it time to demand that Pennsylvania repeal its car-care mandate?