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SALT LAKE CITY — During the first full year after Utah eliminated mandatory safety inspections for most passenger vehicles, court records show the number of citations issued to motorists for unsafe vehicles jumped 43 percent.
If you drive Utah roads, you may have noticed more headlights out during morning and evening commutes.
State Senator Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, snapped pictures of cars held together with tarp straps. He later shared those photos on social media.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers have spotted trucks lifted too high and cars with the wrong color headlights installed. They’ve also noticed more crashes caused, in part, by bald tires.
“We have seen an increase in the number of vehicles that are either crashing, slide offs, or they’re having a hard time getting up the ramp,” said Lt. Col. Mark Zesiger with the Utah Highway Patrol.
Bald tires have put cars in ditches, shut down I-15 for multi-vehicle crashes and killed people. In two separate crashes during a massive snowstorm on Feb. 6, bald tires were blamed for killing a grandmother of 18 and a father of two.
Mechanic horror stories
Utah lawmakers voted to eliminate mandatory car safety inspections in 2017. The owners of Matson Auto in Riverton said that was a mistake.
“Some people treat their vehicle like the microwave. They expect it to run until it dies,” said owner and manager Mike Matson.
Mike and his brother Chris want the mandatory safety checks brought back. They believe the inspections make Utah roads safer for everyone.
“I’m on the road with you; it’s not just for your car, it’s for mine too,” said owner Chris Matson.
Before the law change, a car owner paid a mechanic $15 to inspect everything from headlights to hidden parts an owner can’t see.
Mike Matson showed a tire with its rubber worn down to the steel on one side. Then he held it up against a car with the “good” side facing out.
“You can’t see the inside of the tire unless you have a lift. Not many people have a lift at home,” he said. “So if you look at this tire, you see the outside and think ‘I have good tires,’ but when you get the inspection, they’re able to catch things like this.”
Chris Matson showed the brake assembly and suspension of a car on a lift. While trying to wiggle several of the components, he said, “If there’s excessive play in those, it’s going to fail (a safety inspection).”
Mechanics see all kinds of problems. KSL obtained video of a Brigham City repair shop shared with a UHP trooper. In it, a mechanic moves a steering wheel up, down, and side-to-side. The wheel appears so loose it could fall off the steering column.
“This is why we need state inspections,” the mechanic can be heard saying, “and it’s not even in here for that to get fixed. Ridiculous.”
Without a failed safety inspection requiring it to be fixed, a driver can keep on trucking.
Dan McCay sponsored the bill to drop safety inspections in 2017 while serving as a state representative from Riverton. He argued, “The facts are that vehicle inspections are a feel good effort that yields little to no reasonable effect.”
He told his fellow lawmakers that studies from BYU and the Government Accountability Office didn’t support the state forcing car owners to visit a mechanic. McCay, who is now a state senator, stands by his bill.
“I know that our roads are safer today as a result of us doing away with vehicle safety inspections,” McCay said .
The new law put police in charge of catching cars with safety problems.
“I’m not giving troopers more work to do,” McCay said. “I think those of us who live among us who aren’t caring for their cars or whatever, they’re the ones adding to their labor.”
More unsafe vehicle tickets
KSL Investigators obtained two years of unsafe vehicle ticket data from Utah’s courts.
A comparison of the number of tickets filed during the final year of mandatory safety inspections against the number of tickets filed in the first year without those inspections showed police officers gave out 43 percent more tickets for unsafe vehicles across the state, a year after safety inspections went away.
“That’s great, isn’t it?” McCay said. “People are getting immediate feedback on the safety of their vehicle and they’re able to go and get it repaired immediately.”
New enforcement model
McCay’s bill also tacked on $1 to car registrations to give the Utah Highway Patrol $2.6 million in new money for more equipment and additional troopers.
“Having additional enforcement and having the additional troopers on the road really is making a difference for our roads,” McCay said.
“That hasn’t happened,” said Lt. Col. Mark Zesiger with the Utah Highway Patrol.
Zesiger said not a single additional trooper has been hired with the money yet. The patrol had to fill 103 open positions first.
The department has used part of the $2.6 million to equip every trooper on the road with a safety inspection kit that contains a window tint measurement device, a tape measure, tire pressure gauge, and tire tread depth gauge. Troopers look for unsafe vehicles in addition to drunk drivers, speeders and distracted drivers.
“We have a lot of demands, there’s no questions about it,” Zesiger said.
He admits, troopers can’t inspect 1.9 million vehicles. He said the goal is to stop cars that could cause a crash. Troopers stopped 34,530 in 2018, but on the side of the road, a trooper can’t check what a mechanic could see in a garage.
“Obviously we’re not getting down into brakes and all those kind of things and the underside of the vehicle on a regular enforcement stop,” Zesiger said.
That means the car on the road next to you may have all kinds of problems.
What’s a fix it ticket?
Troopers and police officers can issue citations or vehicle repair orders. A citation is often called a “fix-it ticket.”
A motorist is given time to make the repair and show a judge the receipt and proof of the repair, often causing the ticket to be dismissed and the fine to be significantly reduced or waived.
A vehicle repair order requires a motorist to fix their vehicle and pass a safety inspection within five days. Failing to address the fix-it ticket could cause a warrant to be issued for the motorist’s arrest.
Failing to address a vehicle repair order allows the state to revoke the car’s registration.