Do state-mandated “safety” inspections ensure a “safe” car? On the day of the inspection, sure. The tires are ok, the brakes check out. Fine.
But what about next week?
And six months down the road?
Literally. Things like tires and brakes – and windshield wipers and suspension components – wear out over time because of friction; i.e. because they rub up against something and as a result of that, they wear down. It’s a gradual process and a differential process; different parts wear at different rates. Brake pads might last 50,000 miles or more. Or half as long.
It depends on the car; it depends on how the car is driven.
Some wear items – like tires – are pretty obvious. No tools or disassembly are required; just have a look. If the wear indicators – raised strips that run across the tread – are becoming visible, it’s a clue you’ll need new tires soon. If the tires are bald – or there’s a bulge or tear on the sidewall – you need new tires today.
Brakes and other wear items are not as obvious.
Sometimes, you can tell by a cursory visual check, but usually, it’s necessary to go a little deeper – with tools.
For brakes, a wheel must usually be removed to have a look at the pads and also to check for other important things such as wheel bearing adjustment, the condition of suspension bits and pieces, etc.
Arguably, this ought to be done more than just once a year.
The safety inspector will pass the car on the day it was inspected, based on its condition that day. A car with just enough tread left on its tires – or just enough brake material left to meet the requirements – will get a sticker. But is the car “safe” to operate for another 12 months, until the next inspection is due?
The inspector may – and should – advise the owner that the car is on the verge of needing new tires or brakes (and so on) and that the owner ought to look into this before the next inspection date. But it’s up to the driver to keep on top of it.
Will he? Especially when the sticker says the car is “safe” for a full year?
That depends on how conscientious the owner is.
Many owners no longer are – and they are arguably less so precisely because of the state-mandated inspections.
Many people no longer even regularly check the air pressure in their tires; after all, won’t the tire pressure monitors – also mandated by the government – do that for them?
And sometimes, not.
The government-mandated tire pressure monitors frequently give inaccurate readings. They also – like the safety inspection sticker on the windshield – tend to have the perverse unintended consequence of encouraging a passive attitude in the owner.
And they still should check it, themselves – manually – using a stick or similar mechanical gauge. Electronic sensors should not be relied upon to replace a simple act of diligence when it comes to – as the Safety Nazis constantly remind us – several thousand pounds of steel and glass moving at high speed.
Same issue with the state-mandated inspections. The danger is that they encourage offloading of responsibility for keeping the car in good order.
Even if a person is well-intended and a state safety inspector conscientiously informs the owner that his car will likely need new tires/brakes (and so on) “soon,” that is easily forgotten as people get busy with life. Remember: Wear happens at varying rates. The brakes, for instance, may have a third or more of their friction material still left at the time of inspection and – usually – that is enough to last at least a another year.
But what if the car is turned over to a hot-rod teenage son or daughter to drive? And the pads wear at a faster rate?
Because the government (via the proxy of the safety inspector) has assumed operational responsibility for keeping track of critical wear items, this may and probably will pass unnoticed, possibly with serious, even life-ending consequences.
Technically – legally – the responsibility is still squarely in the lap of the owner of the vehicle. But the policy encourages inattention and neglect.
Much in the same way that government-guaranteed health insurance arguably discourages people from taking good care of their bodies.
After all, they are “covered”!
Ultimately, we are all responsible for ourselves – our bodies as well as our cars. Don’t assume your car is “safe” just because it has a sticker on the windshield!
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