Utah legislative committee revs up new plan for vehicle safety inspections

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Northbound traffic on I-15 approaching American Fork on Wednesday Aug. 28, 2019. On Wednesday, a legislative committee voted to begin drafting legislation that could add a requirement for vehicle safety inspections to the sale of used vehicles in the state.

Utah did away with mandatory vehicle safety inspections in 2017, but car equipment checkups could be making a partial comeback after a legislative panel voted Wednesday to begin drafting legislation for the 2020 session.

Members of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee backed the request of Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, to open a committee bill and explore the “low-hanging fruit” of requiring inspections as part of the sale of used vehicles.

“I am respectful that people want to have an experience that has less bureaucracy,” Riebe said. “But when I get on the highway, I have an assumption that the cars around me are safe, that the highways are safe.”

Riebe also said that was motivated by a desire to lighten the workload of Utah Highway Patrol troopers, who are responsible for enforcing vehicle safety standards. By preventing the sale of unsafe cars, she argued, troopers would be able to spend less time on roadside safety enforcement.

“This might be something that could free up our Highway Patrol to do more important tasks,” Riebe said.

Libertas President Connor Boyack said the proposal might be intended as low-hanging fruit, but could turn into a “camel’s nose” that leads the state back to mandatory, and questionably effective, vehicle inspections.

Roughly 15 states still require safety inspections, with no measurable correlation to traffic safety, and several states have repealed their inspection programs in recent years, as Utah did, without experiencing spikes in fatalities and injuries.

“I don’t know that the data substantiates doing even this proposal,” Boyack said of adding inspections to used car sales.

A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress, could find no difference in accident rates between states that required safety inspections and those that did not.

Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Matt Spillman, who commands the vehicle safety section, said vehicle collisions in which equipment was a contributor — but not necessarily the primary contributor — are on trend to increase by 11% this year.

The number of equipment-related traffic stops have also increased from 33,182 in 2017 to 46,121 in 2019 and vehicle repair orders have swelled from 43 to 520 during the same period, Spillman said. But Spillman emphasized that those numbers are largely due to a new emphasis on enforcement and education to compensate for the drop in inspections.

“That’s really just a direct reflection of our focus and engagement in trying to do as the Legislature intended,” he said.

He said it is hard to quantify whether, or how much, Utah cars have trended less safe since the repeal of mandatory inspections.

“If you were to ask a roadside trooper anecdotally, they may say that they feel like violations have gone up,” Spillman said. “But I can’t put a number to that.”

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, said that he had no issue with Riebe pursuing the issue as an individual legislator, but that he was not convinced the problem justified the backing of the full committee. He also noted that while businesses don’t have a right to mislead their customers, they and individuals do have a right to sell equipment in poor working condition.

Committee bills are traditionally prioritized, which can be a significant advantage to getting legislation passed during the annual 45-day session.

“I appreciate the concern that perhaps you see this as some low-hanging fruit,” Miles told Riebe. “I guess I’m not convinced that there’s really a need here.”

But Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, argued that opening a committee bill file does not mean the committee will ultimately vote to send legislation to the floor of the House or Senate. But the issues raised by Riebe and the Highway Patrol justify continued debate and consideration, she said.

“I think we should look into it a little more,” she said.