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Texas Legislature on the Verge of Eliminating Vehicle Safety Inspections, But Fees Would Remain

A bill headed for a Senate vote would kill safety inspections but continue to charge drivers state fees. Emissions inspections would still be required in large urban counties

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The Texas legislature appeared poised Thursday night to eliminate state vehicle safety inspections.

House Bill 3297, authored by Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine), has already passed the Texas House and could receive a Senate vote as early as Friday. If passed, it would be headed for the governor’s desk.

But across the state, certified vehicle inspectors are crying foul, warning the bill could put more unsafe cars and Texas roads, and pointing out that, under the current proposal, the state would continue to collect fees from drivers, even after inspections go away.

And, in the DFW area, where the large urban counties are under federal emissions testing requirements, drivers would still be required to get an annual emissions inspection, even if the state safety inspections are eliminated.

For years, Republican lawmakers have had their sights set on killing safety inspections, arguing that they are an inconvenience for car owners and do little to protect drivers.

“If you have bald tires, that's up to you. I mean, it's a personal responsibility. If you have bald tires go replace your tires, Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth) told NBC 5 Investigates in an April interview. Goldman has helped lead the charge to kill vehicle inspections in this year’s legislative session.

But, inspectors who check cars at state-licensed shops counter that cars with bald tires, and bad brakes affect more than just the person behind the wheel of that one car.

“An unsafe vehicle is not only unsafe to the owner of that car and the other occupants, it's unsafe to everybody else on the road”, said Greg Cole who heads the Texas Vehicle Inspection Association, which represents state-licensed shops and inspector statewide.

Cole said those shops help drivers identify critical safety concerns every day.

“We see a lot of unaware people coming in with, 'I didn't know the tires were bad,' they didn't know what a 'wear bar' is,” Cole told NBC 5 Investigates.

Nationally, studies of state inspection programs have shown mixed results on safety. But in Texas, there are bigger questions about whether it's even possible to evaluate the program’s effectiveness because, as a monthslong NBC 5 investigation has shown, the program is riddled with fraud.

Our reporting exposed widespread cheating by inspection shops, falsely passing cars in exchange for cash, according to law enforcement authorities.

One team of investigators in Travis County told NBC 5 Investigates they believe as many as five million cars on Texas roads had fake inspections.

“Vehicle was never there, they never checked insurance on it, nothing”, said Sgt. Jose Escribano who heads a special vehicle fraud investigation unit with the Travis County Constables, Precinct 3.

That fraud infuriates legitimate shop owners and leaves some wondering if the effectiveness of inspections has been undercut by cheating.

“So, yeah. How good is the data that we have at that point?” Cole said.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has vowed to crack down on fake inspections in the wake of the NBC 5 investigation. 

The DPS director has promised to work with the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality to shore up loopholes in the state's emissions inspection computer system that make it easier for inspectors to get away with issuing fake passing inspection reports.

But in the legislature, some have argued that cheating is just another reason to kill the program entirely.

“Until you give me the solution of how to get rid of the fraud and abuse that is rampant across the state with fake inspections, then my opinion is the why do we have the inspections at all,” Rep. Goldman said in that April interview.

Some Democrats have pushed back, arguing families could be at greater risk on roads if cars are not checked.

“I mean, there's a reason why we have inspections. We want to make sure that these cars are safe. We want to make sure that people are, you know, changing their windshield wipers and their tires are good”, said Rep. Ramon Romero (D-Fort Worth).

Even if the inspections go away, the state will still get your money. The current bill would simply convert the $7.50 inspection fee the state collects to a new charge you would pay when you register your car.

“This is a new tax because there's no service, no benefit, you know, to the motoring public anymore,” Cole said.

But lawmakers and legislative staffers who support eliminating inspections told NBC 5 Investigates the state must continue to collect the fees because the money goes to the state mobility fund which finances transportation projects and lawmakers don't want the fund to be impacted if inspections are eliminated.

Previous legislative efforts to kill inspections stalled over concerns that the plan would severely impact the financial strength of the mobility fund.

The Texas Senate recessed late Thursday night without taking any action on the inspection elimination bill.  There was talk at the capitol Thursday of possible amendments to the bill which might extend the timeline for eliminating safety inspections by a year or two, in order to give inspection shops and state agencies time to adjust.

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