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Automobile emissions inspections have been in the news this week as the North Carolina Division of Air Quality (DAQ) held a public hearing over eliminating inspections for newer model cars. The hearing related to last year’s passage of House Bill 585, which exempts cars up to three model years old and under 70,000 vehicle miles traveled from the state’s emissions inspection mandate.

The change was a common-sense way of addressing the problem of vehicle emissions. Put simply, the problem isn’t from brand-new cars. It’s from older cars — with the worst emissions usually from cars that are also exempt from emissions inspections by virtue of being old; specifically, model years 1995 and older.

Ending emissions inspections for the newest vehicles not only makes sense because they were essentially superfluous, but also because they cost drivers money. The emissions inspection carries a charge of $16.40 on top of the mandated annual safety inspection of $13.60.

After the hearings, the state Environmental Management Commission will work out the details of the exemption. Those would then have to meet the approval of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Two separate studies — one done for the legislature by DAQ in conjunction with the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, and another study by DAQ released last month — both concluded that the exemption would have a negligible impact on the state’s air quality.

The EPA should therefore have no trouble allowing the exemption, except of course that one cannot simply expect the EPA to act as it should. Federal agencies are like child stars; in a few years’ time they get totally out of control and everyone wishes they would just go away. But with its oversexed regulatory regime about to smash into whatever semblance of a national economic recovery there may be, and now with its mad spending spree to lay the groundwork for an unprecedented power grab if it preemptively vetoes an Alaskan mining project worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs annually even before the permit applications are filed, the EPA has gone full Miley Cyrus.

True, the EPA had gone wild long ago, before the Cyrus everyone was sick of was Miley’s father with his achy breaky ear atrocity. Around that time, Ohio Congressman James A. Traficant (D), a rascal but a quotable one, expressed disgust over the EPA for promulgating $60 billion’s worth of new regulations that the agency’s own scientists said were unjustified. As he put it, the "fat-cat bureaucrats" of the EPA were "so dumb they could throw themselves at the ground and miss."

(A $60 billion burden is chump change to today’s EPA, which seeks to add nearly ten times as much now. One wonders how Traficant would describe over half a trillion dollars’ worth of new regulatory hassles. Perhaps he would channel Malcolm Tucker in denouncing bureaucrats "so dense that light bends around them.")

‘A triumph of cronyism’

While exempting new cars from emissions inspections is common sense, so would be exempting them from safety inspections, too. My report on Carolina Cronyism noted that "state agencies, the governor, members of both parties, news media, and presumably drivers as well all support[ed] reforming the safety inspections," but they persist regardless in "a triumph of cronyism." The report notes:

North Carolina motorists spend $106 million annually just on inspection fees, $99 million of which stays with the service stations and garages. Cars have greatly improved in safety since 1966 [when N.C. began requiring annual safety inspections], and several states have relaxed or dropped entirely their auto safety inspections. Research casts doubt on the inspections’ actual usefulness. North Carolina is one of 17 states still requiring auto inspections, though there have been efforts for years to get the state to drop or at least modify them. …

In November 2011, Gov. Bev Perdue ordered a full review of the auto inspection program and spoke in favor of exempting newer cars and trucks from inspections. Perdue’s order came after an investigation by the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer found, in the words of a Charlotte Observer editorial, "the N.C. system is so mired in corruption — bribery, cheating, falsifying documents — that the auto inspection process has become a sham," further calling it "a waste of time and money" and applauding exempting newer vehicles.

The report details several legislative efforts since 1999 to end or reform safety inspections, all shot down after intense industry lobbying, copious campaign donations, and warnings about how service stations would be shut down were it not for the State of North Carolina forcing drivers to do business with them once a year.

Granted, advocates didn’t state the case in those terms. But as I wrote then, it was "a good-government reform beneficial to most North Carolinians being blocked out of concern for the very industry being propped up by state mandate."

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