When Mike Gelormini inspected a Honda that was recently towed into his New Providence repair shop, he quickly discovered that the tie rod, a critical component of the vehicle’s steering system, had snapped when the driver—a first-time customer at Gelormini’s shop— swerved to avoid an animal. Despite the wear on the part, which would have been an early alert to most mechanics, the car had a valid New Jersey inspection sticker.

“A good mechanic could catch that before the part weakened to the breaking point,” said Gelormini, owner of Gelormini's Auto Repair. “But since the state dropped the mechanical inspection part of its mandatory inspection program [in August 2010], we’ve been seeing more incidents like this. Many people don’t bother to have their car checked periodically unless the state forces them to.”

The state hires a third-party company to do inspections, and reportedly saved millions of dollars a year by limiting the reviews to emissions-only, at least for most privately held vehicles.

Sign Up for E-News

But newly released data raise questions about the wisdom of that decision, according to a retailers’ organization. In contrast, the state’s decision to trim the inspection process was praised by a driver advocacy group that says safety is a matter of personal responsibility.

“New State Police statistics were recently made available that showed an uptick in the number of traffic related deaths in 2011,” according to Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience, Automotive Association (NJGCA). “Unfortunately for state motorists, this marks the end of a five-year trend in which fatalities decreased year-after-year. Looking back on 2011, I can’t help but question if there is any correlation between this new report and the elimination of safety inspections in August of 2010.”

Gelormini doesn’t doubt it, and says he sees the results of that decision almost every day.

“When parents pick up their kids at school, I see more bald tires than ever before,” he says. “People don’t know, or they’re just trying to cut back on expenses. But they’re putting lives at risk.”

Another observer disputes that.

“The automotive repair industry likes government mandated inspections because it spoon feeds them with customers,” according to Stephen G. Carrellas, the director of government and public affairs at the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association. “State mechanical inspections penalize people who service their cars regularly. If they don’t address the problem early on, it will simply cost the owner more to fix it later on.”

Both sides can point to studies that appear to support their respective positions.

A 2009 study by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation found that “states with vehicle safety inspection programs have significantly less fatal crashes than states without programs,” according to the NJGCA’s Risalvato. “The impact of mandated safety inspections cannot be understated in New Jersey, which boasts the most densely populated region in the country.”

But an earlier study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “there was no conclusive evidence in the literature that PMVI [Periodic Motor Vehicle Inspection] programs are, or are not, effective in reducing crashes.”

The task force found that PMVI was effective in limiting the number of poorly maintained vehicles on the highways, but “any attempt to correlate this with a reduction in crashes on the highways failed to show any significant effect of PMVI,” it noted.

“Mandating mechanical inspections burdens us all with unnecessary costs in time and money,” says Carrellas. “We think it’s great that New Jersey finally got rid of it.”