CHARLIE MITCHELL: Still sticking stickers after all these years

The brakes may not work, but the brake lights must.

The engine can spew gray-black smoke at intense levels, but if the blinker blinks, the vehicle is deemed safe for Mississippi roads.

This state's vehicle inspection law is outdated, outmoded, ineffective and, overall, pretty absurd.

The state trooper in charge knows it.

At least two members of the Legislature know it.

But don't look for anything to change right away. For one thing, at $5 each the meaningless “inspection stickers” generate a meaningful $4 million a year for the state treasury. For another, history says credible steps to improve highway safety in Mississippi – which almost always leads the nation in fatalities per road mile traveled – never make it past the idea stage with “lack of money” always cited as the excuse.

As often happens with government programs, Mississippi's system requiring vehicles to pass annual check-ups was born of good intentions. The increasing number of cars on the road in the late 1950s seemed to mandate that “something be done” to assure all had front and rear lights and such. After all, some people were driving at night. So the requirement of an annual once-over by a mechanic who, in turn, would confer a color-coded windshield sticker, came into being in 1961.

In other areas of the nation, as pollution became a concern, emissions tests were added to inspection criteria. Mississippi didn't jump on that bandwagon.

But more recently, a whole bunch of states that got into the inspection game have gotten out. Included are Mississippi's neighbors including Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. In fact, while tailpipe checks remain common in and around large cities, only 19 states are left, including Mississippi and Louisiana, that require inspection stickers.

The reasons are clear: There has been no correlation between the stickers and improved safety, for one thing. For another, the revenue was minimal in terms of the hassle to the citizenry.

There are other reasons, too. Due to technology and a federal nudge, car makers now produce vehicles with headlights that last as long as the car or truck does, turn signals are more reliable and such. It's just not like the old days when the guys at the service station (remember them?) also stocked fuses and sealed beams and could replace a bad bulb before the gas pump dinged.

It's also an open secret that some inspection stations are, shall we say, more liberal with the rules than others? Many a new inspection sticker has been stuck on a dangerously broken windshield because somebody knew somebody who knew somebody.

Lt. Tyrone Lockwood, a 20-year trooper who heads the inspection office, was candid when Jack Elliot of The Associated Press interviewed him on the point. Troopers have the authority to cite any person operating a vehicle with unsafe equipment. The sticker means nothing – except the opportunity to pay a fine if it is expired.

Fully 1,700 car dealerships and service centers pay the state's $10 annual fee to become a certified inspection station. They keep $3 per car. None makes a living from it. At best, inspection stations use sticker sales as a draw to sell oil changes, tire rotations and other work. The law says the person checking vehicles has to have a year's experience in the automotive arena. Yeah. Right.

But since this scam nets $2 per car per year for the state treasury, Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and Rep. Tom Cameron, I-Greenville, who prefiled legislation to “ax the inspections” again this year don't have high hopes.

Their bills have again been referred to transportation committees where they've died without much fanfare in years past.

It's just a suggestion, but if they really want to make the roads safer, maybe Nunnalee and Cameron should consider keeping the sticker requirement but amending the law to funnel the money they raise to paint for striping highways, especially outside edges; lighting intersections; working shoulders.

Better maintenance would save lives and reduce property damage and injuries in Mississippi.

A little sticker on a windshield might have been a good idea at one time – but it's just a nuisance now.

Charlie Mitchell is managing editor of The Vicksburg Post, P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182. E-mail reaches him at post@vicksburg.com