Brits Are Freaking Out Over Vehicle Inspections And They Need To Calm The Hell Down

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“Car industry bodies hit back at ‘dangerous’ biennial MOT plan” reads Autocar’s article about the U.K.’s proposal to reduce living expenses by making vehicle safety inspections (MOTs) mandatory every two years instead of one. “Scrapping annual MOT could lead to 2.9million dangerous cars on UK roads” writes the Daily Express. “Scrapping annual MOT tests would cost lives and wouldn’t even save motorists money, experts say” iNews writes. These are just three of many articles critical of the biennial inspection proposal, and I find them to be rather laughable and borderline fearmongering. Here’s why.

I mention this topic after seeing talented-car-journalist Jonny Smith’s tweet a few weeks ago:

“Worth risking for national road safety?” Smith asks, clearly dischuffed at the proposal. Again, he isn’t alone. Even British motoring association “The AA” issued a statement ripping on the idea, with The Sunday Times reporting:

“Though well intended, moving the yearly £55 spend on an MOT to every two years could make costs worse for drivers with higher repair bills, make our roads more dangerous and would put jobs in the garage industry at risk,” said the organisation’s head of roads policy, Jack Cousens, who noted that a previous call for biannual MOTs was ditched after review.

“Only recently the government stepped away from switching the MOT to every two years on the grounds of road safety, while AA polling shows overwhelming support from drivers who like the security that an annual health check provides.

“The MOT now highlights major and dangerous defects too, showing how important it is to keep cars in a safe condition.”

That second paragraph saying drivers actually prefer annual MOTs is a bit bonkers to me. But so is this quote from the same article:

“This could be genuinely dangerous for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians and we would be seeing cars on the roads with serious defects. And when it comes to the cost of living, this proposal won’t help at all,” said Karen Rotberg, co-founder of BookMyGarage.

This all comes as Britain struggles with inflation and high energy bills — all of which have combined to lead U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask his cabinet to “come with ‘innovative’ ideas to help ease the pressure on household finances which do not require government spending,” per Sky News. Apparently the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, floated this idea of making the annual vehicle inspection biennial.

Anyway, unlike Smith and a bunch of British publications, I do not see this as a significant safety problem at all. In fact, to even suggest that it’s a major safety hazard is utterly laughable.

Much Ado About Nothing

Look, as many of you know, I live in Michigan, a state that has no safety inspection whatsoever. I’ve been critical of this overly-laissez-faire approach from a state that uses so much road salt; I’ve even called for a basic inspection that looks for rusted-out brake lines and bad ball joints, so I want to be clear that I’m not at all saying “Michigan doesn’t do it, so stop being babies.” Michigan’s approach is illogical.

With that said, even though I do think a basic inspection is a good idea, I know full well that there’s plenty of data out there showing that safety inspections aren’t really that effective.  For one, it’s not like cars are crashing left and right due to mechanical failures, with the U.S. Department of Transportation writing:

The critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94 percent (±2.2%)† of the crashes. In about 2 percent (±0.7%) of the crashes, the critical reason was assigned to a vehicle component’s failure or degradation.

Two percent in the U.S.. That’s not a huge figure to begin with, but it’s still more than zero, I’ll grant that. Still, numerous studies have shown very little correlation between vehicle crash rates and inspection mandates, mentioning that the inspection programs tend to be poorly run, and that they yield very little measurable benefit to road safety.

Still, despite the small number of crashes resulting from mechanical failures, and despite the literature pointing to inspections not necessarily offering much relief in terms of component failure-caused incidents, I still believe in basic safety inspections on principle, especially after having seen numerous dangerous corrosion-related vehicular failures that could have easily been prevented.

The reason why I think the Brits complaining about biennial inspections taking the place of annual ones is so absurd has little to do with whether these inspections are actually just placebos in the first place. Let’s ignore the studies/data for a second, and just consider this: Germany, a country with the Autobahn network on which one can literally drive one’s car at 200 mph if the vehicle can go that fast, requires just one TÜV inspection every two years. Here, I’ve actually gone through that inspection myself with a van I bought for $600:

I YouTubed the British MOT test, and it looks remarkably similar to Germany’s TÜV test:

 

My point here is that there is absolutely no way in hell that Great Britain needs to inspect its cars twice as frequently as Germany does. I get it; there are some differences in the inspections, the roadways are maintained differently, and there are a bunch of other factors at play, but the typical U.K. motorist doesn’t even drive 7,500 miles a year. That’s less than the average German motorist, who — I’ll reiterate — drives literally as fast as they freaking want to. (And here in the lawless, poorly maintained roads of the U.S., we drive over 12,000 miles a year). Plus, a quick google search shows that there are more registered cars on the road in Germany than in the U.K.

So, to reiterate, Germany has more cars, they drive faster, and yet the nation has mandatory vehicle inspections every two years. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says the cars on German roads are dangerous; as someone who’s gotten a junker through Germany’s TÜV, trust me when I say they are anything but. If anything, Germany’s inspection is too frequent.

Plus, from a technical side of things, what’s the real concern, here? As an engineer and experienced at-home mechanic, I have a good idea of what can make a car genuinely dangerous. Bad wheel bearings can do it, bad ball joints, rusty brake lines and suspension/structural components, wobbly tie rod ends, exhausts that rust off, old tires, compromised braking systems — these are the main worries. Pretty much anything that can prevent your car from steering, stopping, or remaining firmly suspended above its four wheels is what you’re most worried about. And the likelihood of these bits going from “in good shape” to “failed catastrophically” in the 15,000 miles the average motorist would be driving between appointments is extremely low. They might have worn out, but to fail catastrophically after being thoroughly and correctly assessed as “in good shape” just 15,000 miles prior (or 25,000 miles for the upper quartile of drivers) just doesn’t seem like a major worry. In my experience, things like wheel bearings will usually start to make some noise before gradually wearing out over a long time. Ball joints will become loose long before that ball shows any signs of wanting to pop out of a socket.

As long as the inspections are done properly with the mindset of “will this last two more years?” then I see no issue here.

[Editor’s Note: Certain mechanical and bodywork issues aren’t an immediate MOT failure, but instead are marked as advisory items and could fail inspection in a year or two’s time. Some of these advisories are a bit on the serious side, including slight play in wheel bearings and slight play in ball joints. Honestly, I’d be more concerned about advisories becoming dangerous within the span of two years than any perfectly good components. – TH]

What Does Our Resident Brit Think?

I asked Adrian Clarke, The Autopian’s resident non-secret car designer. I figured if I didn’t get at least some input from a Brit, I’d be eviscerated in the comments like I was back when I foolishly used the term “spastic” in my Jalopnik review of the then-new Wheeler Dealers series (turns out that’s a really bad word among British folks; I nearly caused an international incident, with Mike Brewer’s fans absolutely destroying me on Twitter — for the record, the term is often used to mean “overly energetic” here in the U.S.).

In fact, if you’ll pardon the brief aside, here’s a comment from Mike Brewer himself (I have no idea what he’s talking about re: stroke victim). Given that the article was so positive, I’m fairly sure he knew I wasn’t being horribly offensive in the middle of a nice blog (clearly it would have been out of place), but mentioned it to drum up drama — ultimately he got me more clicks, though not for reasons I’m proud of, obviously:

Anyway, back to Adrian, the man who will make this article immune to any criticism that could spark another international incident between the U.K. and the U.S.. I asked him about the MOT, and he broke it down: “It takes about 45 minutes, it’s a general roadworthiness test, they look at tyres, suspension for wear, visible structural corrosion, safety systems, emissions, lighting that sort of thing.”

“From what I understand the objections seem to be if you can’t afford to MOT your car yearly, you’ve got bigger financial problems,” he told me in a chat message. “Also all MOT records are now public and cover a vehicles mileage as well, so it’s a great way of tackling fraud if you’re looking to buy a second hand car” he continued.

“No it’s not cheap, but in the grand scheme of things that’s a pound a week,” he said, mentioning that it’s not hard to find shops that’ll do the inspection for under 40 pounds. “People would prefer a reduction in fuel duty as a cost of living reduction.”

When I asked him if he thought it was a danger to go to every two years, he responded: “To be honest it’s probably not, as cars are so much better now than they used to be, but there will always be those edge cases. It’s not like in the US where you see bald tyres and stuff.”
Two notes on that last statement: His point about cars being better today than in 1960 when MOTs started their annual tradition is a good one. Though vehicles travel faster now, they’re better built. Also, notice how Adrian spells “tires” incorrectly — proof he’s an actual Brit, which, again, I’m pointing out because I’m about to call Brits “babies” here in a few paragraphs, and I’m hoping that including someone from the U.K. will shield me from sparking another Twitter war. Clearly I’m still traumatized from the Brewer Incident Of 2017.
Adrian went on to say there are much better ways to reduce costs for families. “It’s typical conservative ‘look we did something’ that actually costs very little,” he said. “Lower gas taxes would be better.”

With All That Said, This Proposal Is Bullshit

Now, I want to make clear that, even though I think many of the Brits claiming that the proposal would lead to unsafe roads are being big babies, I do find this whole concept to be absolutely idiotic.

First off, if the whole premise behind annual inspections is that they do indeed exist for safety reasons (whether that bears itself out with data or not), then removing them to save motorists 55 pounds every couple of years makes little sense. If you’re going to claim to do something for safety reasons, you don’t stop doing it to save people a few bucks. The whole idea is silly.

It’s also worth discussing some of the points that YouTuber Twin-Cam (did he name his channel after the GM successor to the beloved Quad 4 dual overhead camshaft inline-four?) mentions in his video above. He talks about how some garages actually do MOT inspections for less than 55 pounds (sometimes 40 quid, like Adrian said) to get folks in the door; but if the inspection goes to every two years, they’ll almost certainly raise prices to the maximum 55 pound figure allowed by law. So that’ll cut into the perceived savings a bit. Twin-Cam also says shops will find ways to make money even if they see fewer vehicles in for MOTs — perhaps mechanics will be harsher, or they’ll raise their rates.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the video above; I think the young man did a great job with it, though he does make this statement: “The proposed change would be a disaster for road safety.”

No. No it will not. There is a very slim chance that it will make any discernible difference to roadway safety. And there is a zero percent chance that it will be a disaster. There’s more from iNews, who writes:

“The suggested law that MOT checks would be changed from annually to every two years will make our roads significantly less safe,” said Rebecca Needham, Rospa’s road safety manager in England.

In 2020 there were 29 fatal accidents and 345 serious injury accidents in which a vehicle defect was a contributing factor, Rospa figures show.

“We expect that this number would increase” if MOT tests became less frequent, Ms Needham said.

No Ms. Needham, I know you’re the Road Safety Manager for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa), but let’s be honest: There’s no way this proposal will make your roads “significantly less safe.” It’s just not going to happen. Please stop with this nonsense.

All of these people claiming that going from a ridiculously frequent inspection to an inspection as frequent as Germany’s golden standard, the TÜV inspection (which is meant to prepare cars for an Autobahn with no speed limit) is going to turn British roads into a bloodbath are full of shit. They’ve got a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, having become so used to Daddy Government coddling them that they just no longer feel safe not having their vehicles looked over every year.

And that’s okay; peace of mind has value. But my dear Brits, stop whining about how this proposal is a safety risk; the reality is that you don’t need an annual inspection. I agree that the premise behind trying to use safety inspections as a way to save cash is dumb, but this isn’t a significant safety risk. Vehicle inspections are already controversial in their effectiveness; your annual MOT came about when people were driving shoddily-built Austin Minis and Hillman Imps and it’s no longer relevant today; Brits drive fewer than 7,500 miles a year; the strict Autobahn-loving Germans drive more and inspect their vehicles only once every two years; and honestly, your major suspension and steering bits aren’t likely to go from “good” to “holy shit this thing is a deathtrap” in 15,000 miles.

This is much ado about nothing. Relax.

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98 Responses

  1. Could they spend a few of those hours programing in or promulgating meaningful error messages?

    If p0126 said “your emgine thermostat is (probably) stuck open” rather than “engine below stable operating temperature” I’d have been able to actually replace the dn thing 4 years earlier rather than just saying “oh no, but nippy is it” and resetting it every couple months.

    100% agree obd2 and such are excellent systems and when you see a CEL you should figure out why. Just wish they could actually put that in either the computer or in the (online) manual

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