Opponents of safety and emission inspection requirements say there is little evidence to prove that they bring about noticeable improvements.
Be they rusty gas guzzlers with faulty brakes or cars that belch blue smoke, in an increasing number of states such cars may not have to limp into a service station for an annual or semi-annual safety or emissions inspection.
Many states already have moved to revoke safety-inspection requirements for car owners. So far in 1982, two states have pulled such laws off the books, joining the eight others that previously had dropped inspection laws.
Emission regulations are also facing challenges from a number of states that contend such requirements pin just one more unnecessary--and costly--federal dictum on the consumer's back.
At issue is not only the role of the federal government in car maintenance, but the effect safety and emissions inspection requirements have on highway safety and air quality. Opponents of both standards say there is little evidence to prove that they bring about noticeable improvements. They also say that private garages may order more repair work than is absolutely required.
In Nebraska, which has just dropped its safety-inspection program, officials at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) say they have heard few complaints about gouging of motorists by inspectors. Lawmakers counter that inspection stickers were sometimes sold without proper inspection, and say the program was not cost-efficient. Despite studies the DMV produced in favor of continuing the inspections, opponents --who included auto repairers--won out.
Mechanical defects in cars are believed to cause between 6 and 12 percent of all highway accidents, the most common problems being faulty brakes and worn tires. States that are repeaheir inspection programs often say garages don't adequately inspect these areas anyway. But proponents of such a law insist the program should simply be upgraded, not dropped completely.
Joseph Grillo of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledges the problems of uneven inspection. But he points to a study done in Alabama that indicates proper checks can reduce accidents by 9 percent. He feels, too, that consumers generally support the program, noting a compliance rate of 75-80 percent.
Since the state has to license inspection garages, Mr. Grillo says, there is at least some element of protection to the consumer.
The Jersey DMV believes its program has managed to circumvent the problem of unequal quality and service. The state, which has had yearly inspection requirements since 1938, has ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in highway safety over the past few years.
''There is no way of equating how many accidents we are preventing,'' says Fred Hoffman, a DMV official. ''But our success record is partially due to public awareness and support.''
Mr. Hoffman stresses the difference between the New Jersey system and those in other states: New Jersey requires that first-time inspections be performed by impartial state facilities that don't stand to reap any benefit from costly repairs. Reinspection--after any necessary repairs are made--can be done either by the state, at no cost, or at a private garage.
However, the private garage must post its hourly labor charge, and is allotted only a certain amount of time to fix a given repair: 12 minutes for turn signals, for example.
''The consumer gets the benefit of the doubt with the 'first-impartial' system,'' Hoffman says. ''And the system has worked well enough for Washington, D.C., to pattern its system after ours.''
Emission inspections are not quite such a flexible issue. According to the Clean Air Act amendments of 1977, states with air-quality problems must set up remedial programs by the end of this year. Some states are trying to change the act and limit its jurisdiction to major urban areas. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, is determined to press these states to comply by the deadline, and has sent letters to 11 states that have not yet even filed plans for a program.
''EPA has to abide by the existing act,'' says Jane Armstrong, the project manager of the EPA's inspection and maintenance staff.
''Resistance has always been there. But in some major cities, the air-quality problem is incredibly severe. So inspection and maintenance becomes the sensible thing to do.''
The American Automobile Association's William Berman attributes the resistance to the political unpopularity of federally required inspections, which cost an average of $5 to $10 a shot.
Whether such inspections are necessary is also a question, he says, noting that California has lost about $870 million in federal aid since 1980 because of its failure to comply with the act. The state already requires auto inspection prior to sale and upon change of ownership--and many question the need for another, annual check.
Ms. Armstrong points out, however, that even with the California procedure, only about 20 percent of the vehicle fleet is checked, which doesn't help much in smog-plagued areas like Los Angeles. She cites opinion polls in states both with and without programs that suggest general consumer support for an annual inspection program.
Right now states must either develop a plan or face federal sanctions, including the withholding of construction permits, highway funds, and aid to improve air-quality and sewerage. Safety requirements remain under the jurisdiction of the state.
But inspection requirements vary widely, depending on the area. As one 1967 Ford station-wagon owner pointed out: ''I couldn't register my car in Connecticut. They said it was too rusted out. So I got a temporary license and took it with me down to school in Florida.
''It passed inspection without a word. I guess they don't care as much about rust.''