Since the Palmetto State eliminated the mandate for vehicles to undergo yearly safety inspections in 1995, the state has consistently ranked in the upper tier of fatal car crashes each year.
South Carolina recorded 988 fatal wrecks in 2017 — the most recent year data is available — which was 13th most in the United States. While it's unknown how many accidents are caused by unsafe vehicles, for one lawmaker the problem is clear and the answer is simple: reinstate mandatory vehicle inspections.
“We’ve got a lot of vehicles on the road that I feel are unsafe,” said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. “When you look at some of the incidents we’ve been having, I think it’s only right we go back to inspecting these vehicles for the safety of the driver, passengers and other motorists.”
In March 2017, Gilliard and six colleagues sponsored a bill that would have required each vehicle registered in South Carolina to have a $10 annual inspection of a car’s mechanism, lights, tires, brakes and equipment. The bill never advanced out of committee.
“South Carolina is pushing almost 5 million in population, and we just don’t have the infrastructure for the vehicles we have on the road,” Gilliard said. “Like South Carolina always is, you have to wait until the horrific things happen. We’re always last in the things that are first and first in things that are last.”
Vehicle inspection programs became somewhat popular in the late 1960s after Congress passed the Highway Safety Act and promised funding for roads to states that implemented safety programs. At its peak in the early 1980s, 31 states had some sort of mandatory inspection program, but the number has steadily dropped since then, and only 15 states have an inspection requirement today.
Common arguments in states that eliminate vehicle inspection programs is that mechanics lose money in labor costs to do the inspections, and so few cars fail those inspections that it isn’t worth it to continue a program that can’t be profitable for anyone involved.
What’s more, studies have found that states that require inspections have insurance rates both above and below the national average, and there isn’t a correlation between a safety inspection and lower insurance rates.
Marty Boynton, owner of Charleston Auto Repair on Ashley River Road, said that when South Carolina’s inspection program was still active, it cost $3, and $2.50 went to the inspection facility. That meant a mechanic who works on commission would maybe make $1 for each inspection they performed.
And today, when most auto labor rates are around $100 per hour, a state inspection program would have to cost the customer at least $50 to make it worth a mechanic’s time.
“Now, of course, there are a lot of unsafe vehicles on the road,” Boynton said. “I feel like there should be some kind of a safety inspection on cars, but not for $2.50.”
A potential compromise, Boynton said, could be to institute an inspection program into a shop’s oil change service. Charleston Auto Repair, for instance, has a 27-point checklist for each oil change — which doesn’t take much longer than a state inspection would.
“It’s probably a good idea for others’ safety on the roads,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want ‘Big Brother,’ they don’t want the government involved. But it is a safety issue. How much of a safety issue is it? I don’t know. I think the cellphone issue is a much bigger concern today.”
Cost was something Gilliard said he considers with any legislation involving safety measures. But ultimately, he said, you can't put a price on saving lives. The legislation is something he said he hopes can come up again in future sessions.
“We’re having more fatalities now. Let’s face it, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure it out, there’s too many vehicles on the road,” he said. “If we don’t act now and with expediency, other bad things are going to happen.”