As math problems go, it looked pretty simple: The school district wanted $420 to ferry my kids to school next year; a friend had a battered Volkswagen for sale for $500.
For the equivalent outlay of a couple tanks of gas, I could not only cover next year’s transportation but reclaim possession of my own car, kidnapped by teen-agers for the better part of a year. It was the perfect solution for all involved, until the little car collided with the Massachusetts inspection system.
“It’ll never pass,” the mechanic said, clearly amused that I had ever thought differently. Overcome by old-car sticker shock — the ratio of repair costs to ultimate value — I bailed. So the VW, which had been ferrying its owner to and from work until she bought a new car last month, will now be donated for a tax deduction and “recycled,” meaning: stripped of usable parts, then crushed like an oversized tin can. “Recycling” is to cars much as “Alpo” is to horses: Neither will be used for transportation again.
This seems like a terrible waste, particularly with our country’s new use-it-up, wear-it-out, make-it-do mantra. We’re all afraid to throw out as much as a plastic soda bottle, given that it can be used as a bird feeder, workout weight, or festive patio lantern instead of destroying the Earth via dastardly landfill. Two-ton cars, however, we’re enthusiastically encouraged to toss. (Nearly 700,000 cars were traded during the government’s Cash for Clunkers program in 2009.) Much is said about the need for affordable housing, but nothing at all about the need for affordable cars, even as the average cost of a new car now exceeds $30,000.
The US Department of Transportation says the average car stays on the road for 12 years, and the VW, built in 1995, is pushing 17. Still, it amiably chugs along, spewing no visible smoke, unaware that it has been sentenced to a horrible end at the hands of Kars 4 Kids. On the charity’s website flashes a list of newly doomed cars: a Volvo abandoned by Gilbert in Brookline; a Ford Focus rejected by Robert in Roslindale. So much promise, so many serviceable parts — forever lost because of unobtainable inspection stickers.
But OK. Maybe the Commonwealth of Massachusetts isn’t so much after our $29 (it’s not a tax!) but is concerned — really concerned — about our physical welfare. The Jetta had, the dour mechanic said, underbody rust, overly salted tie rods, a broken front grille, an oil leak, and a failing clutch. That the broken front grille had made it past last year’s inspection was no problem of his. It would cost thousands to fix what was wrong, he said, magically transforming the previously outrageous bus fee into the transportation deal of the year.
The VW would still be on the road if it were garaged in South Carolina or Montana. Most states do not require safety inspections anymore, although New England states still do. Like a killer caught in Texas, the Jetta will die for an accident of geography, for the disparate liberties we call states’ rights.
But one can be a champion of small, limited government and still wish for that government to make sense. Looking at the disconnected pieces that make up the puzzle of our nation’s vehicle inspections, one longs for the firm, steadying hand of a national bureaucracy.
Our interstates are porous. Vacationers from states without mandatory inspections dart in and out of our borders each day. We do not deny the occasional Minnesotan the right to travel the Mass. Pike for lack of a safety inspection 1,400 miles away. But in letting him in, endangering our own safe cars with his loose hubcaps and marginal brakes, our own proud decals seem diminished — less a safety measure, more a tax. We could secede, but that seems like a lot of trouble to keep the sticker-less barbarian Volvos at the gate.
Still, we can all sleep better tonight, knowing that, here in New England, we keep our roads safe, and our air quality pure, one rusty little Jetta at a time. Our intentions are good. I can’t help but wonder, though, if it isn’t the 6-miles-per-gallon school bus that should be grounded.
Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton.