As North Carolina cracks down on fraud in its auto inspection program, the number of vehicles failing safety tests has tripled, a new report shows.
Some 1.2 million vehicles - or 15 percent - did not pass mandatory safety checks in 2011 compared with about 404,000 the previous year, the report said.
Cars and trucks that failed inspection were most often cited for faulty windshield wipers, stoplights, license plate lights and tires.
The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, which oversees the inspection program, attributed the spike to efforts to catch garages that give passing marks to vehicles "suspiciously soon" after they failed at another garage.
"We're doing a better job," DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson said.
The report came in response to a series by The Charlotte Observer last year that found garages that inspect vehicles have undermined the program by passing unsafe cars or cheating customers with unnecessary repairs. The newspaper also found that more than a dozen states have abolished safety inspections since the 1970s and research showed little impact on road safety.
In November, Gov. Bev Perdue ordered a "detailed assessment" of the program after the articles were published. Perdue said the state should consider exempting newer cars and trucks from state-mandated inspections since many are under manufacturer warranties.
She also said an evaluation was needed because the state should "know if we need this kind of system."
But the report, released earlier this week, does not address questions about whether safety inspections are necessary or if newer vehicles should be exempted.
Overall, the report provides relatively little information about the program. It is a PowerPoint-style presentation where at least 19 of the 30 pages consist of pictures of vehicles with safety defects.
A 2008 study by the N.C. Program Evaluation Division that recommends eliminating safety inspections or exempting new cars runs 45 pages and contains detailed data on the program's history, garage performance and trends in other states.
Asked about the thoroughness of his agency's safety inspection report, Robertson said officials followed directions from the governor's office.
He said the DMV was not asked to make a recommendation on whether to continue the program, but said the report is proof the program is "working well."
A spokeswoman for Perdue would only say that the governor would review the DMV report and then decide whether to take any further action.
Program under scrutiny
North Carolina's auto inspections are supposed to curb traffic crashes and pollution.
Annually, auto owners take vehicles to state-licensed private garages where inspectors check tires, brakes and other parts.
Motorists whose vehicles pass are permitted to renew their auto registration. Those who fail must pay for repairs before they can register their vehicles.
The state implemented the safety program in 1966 after a rapid rise in highway fatalities.
It has come under scrutiny over the years as traffic deaths declined and auto technology advanced.
The Charlotte Observer last year obtained records for more than 23 million inspections in North Carolina performed since 2008. The data showed that even though the tests are designed to be uniform from garage to garage, some stations failed more than one of every five cars, while nearby stations almost always passed cars.
Some garage owners told the newspaper that some inspectors enhance profits by passing nearly every car to entice repeat business. Other garages, they said, fail properly functioning vehicles to sell unneeded repairs.
North Carolina lawmakers last year asked transportation and environmental officials to look into whether the state could eliminate emissions tests and still meet federal pollution guidelines.
In another report released this week, the agencies recommended the legislature exempt vehicles 3 years old and newer from the emissions inspections.
Nationally, at least 10 states that require mandatory emissions testing exempt cars 3 years old or newer.
State Sen. Stan Bingham, a Davidson County Republican, said the odds that North Carolina lawmakers will alter auto inspection requirements this year are low.
Last fall, Bingham said he planned to seek support for a proposal that would exempt newer cars and trucks from emissions and safety inspections.
But Republican leaders, who enjoy majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, have warned lawmakers they do not plan to take up controversial debates during a legislative session that begins in May, Bingham said.
vehicles rarely fail the tests.
Auto owners typically pay $30 for safety and emissions tests. Garages keep $23.75, and the state receives the remaining $6.25.
In counties with only safety checks, drivers pay $13.60, with $12.75 going to the garage. The state collects the other 85 cents.
Safety checks 'critical'
DMV officials said safety inspections save lives by preventing traffic crashes.
"The safety program is critical," Robertson said. "I truly believe it takes a lot of stuff off the road."
He said his agency's new report validates efforts to weed out garages that take bribes to falsify test results or swindle customers with unnecessary repairs.
Garage workers and customers face criminal and civil charges for nearly 1,000 violations uncovered from June 2011 to December 2011, the report said.
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027