Several times over the last 15 years, the Legislature has considered eliminating Maine’s motor vehicle safety inspection program, and each time safety has won out. Safety will likely win out again this session – and that’s the right decision.

But lawmakers shouldn’t dismiss what the debate over annual car inspections says about the anxiety and insecurity of living poor in a state like Maine.

Several bills aimed at reducing or eliminating inspections were submitted this legislative session, just as they have been in at least five sessions since 2003, failing each time. The Transportation Committee has whittled the group down to one: L.D. 270, from Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, which would end inspections altogether for most non-commercial vehicles.

Backers of the bill say inspections don’t reduce the number of accidents or save lives. Inspections, they say, also set up perverse incentives for unscrupulous mechanics to find as many problems as possible so they can charge for the repairs.

The latter point is an argument for better oversight of inspection stations, and for standards that make sure cars only fail for problems that constitute true safety hazards.

As for the former point, it’s not so clear.


One study, out of Utah, found that eliminating inspections had no effect on vehicle failure or fatalities from accidents. The Government Accountability Office also found inspections had no clear influence on crash rates, but said benefits from inspections are “difficult to quantify” and may be missed by such studies. A review in Pennsylvania concluded that state’s program is “effective and saves lives.”

(In any case, it should be noted that accidents from vehicle malfunction or failure represent only a small fraction of overall accidents.)

Without conclusive evidence that the inspection program is a waste of time, and with testimony from state police and mechanics to the contrary, it wouldn’t be right to ditch it now.

But we shouldn’t forget what the requirement for annual inspections means for many Mainers.

First off, it means more than feeling inconvenienced by an annual trip to the garage, and it means more than dipping into savings or adding a little short-term debt to keep the car on the road.

For Mainers without savings and nowhere else to turn for help, it means putting off the inspection as long as possible, even if one wheel feels wonky or the brakes are starting to screech.


It means driving in fear that a police officer will notice the expired sticker and issue a ticket. It means wondering how you will be able to pay the resulting fine if you couldn’t afford the repairs in the first place – and what will happen if you don’t.

In many cases, it means choosing between getting around in a rural state, or following the law.

That explains why nearly 11,000 tickets for failing to display an inspection sticker were issued in 2016, and why police are finding more fake stickers than ever. Maine’s landscape – and poor public transportation – make a motor vehicle essential, but too many Mainers can’t afford to keep a vehicle safe for the road.

Whatever the Legislature decides to do about inspections, that’s a pretty big problem.

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