Few Cincinnatians Shed a Tear When the Safety Lane Shut Down

A government program intended to reduce traffic fatalities turned into a bureaucratic mess. Imagine that!

Gather round, youngsters, and hear tell about a vintage Cincinnati tradition long consigned to the dustbin of history. I refer to the old Safety Lane, gone 40 years this year.

Every Cincinnati motorist of a certain age remembers entering the gantlet of automotive inspection with not a bit of nostalgia.

Photograph courtesy of National Archives

Time was when every automobile cruising Cincinnati thoroughfares was required to show a current sticker proving that it had passed an inspection affirming it was in a condition to be operated safely. A burned-out headlight, a silent horn, faulty brakes, and even shaky alignment earned a temporary tag, giving the driver a week to repair the problem.

The real problem was there were so many loopholes in the Safety Lane system that the whole operation finally devoured itself. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

The Safety Lane began as a voluntary service at a time when automobile fatalities were spiraling out of control. In 1934, the city of Cincinnati alone logged 201 fatal automobile accidents; for comparison, all of Hamilton County recorded 108 auto fatalities in 2019. In 1935, the National Safety Council ranked Cincinnati as among the most dangerous municipalities to drive in.

In response, Municipal Court Judge Elmer Hunsicker created a civic organization known as the Traffic Safety Council. In 1935, the Council opened its first Safety Lane on Court Street, an outdoor, drive-through service offering thorough evaluations to motorists on a voluntary basis. Perhaps to emphasize the life-saving intent, the lane was operated under the auspices of the County Coroner. On a single day in May 1935, the temporary service flagged defects on 77 of 109 cars inspected, with more than half failing because of headlights, five for faulty brakes, and four for poor alignment.

A year later, funded by the Works Progress Administration, the lane moved to the new Union Terminal and provided jobs for 36 men during the Depression. As more cars earned failing marks, the city decided to make regular inspections mandatory and located a site along Central Parkway near the Hopple Street Viaduct to build a permanent facility. The official city-operated Safety Lane opened on December 21, 1939. On April 1, 1940, inspections every six months became mandatory. That’s when the fun started.

Almost simultaneously with Cincinnati, Norwood initiated an inspection program and motorists played the two inspections against each other. If an auto failed in Cincinnati, the driver drove to Norwood and often got a better result. Although a significant number of owners went to Butler or Clermont counties to register their vehicles—on the assumption that police would tag cars only with Hamilton County plates—cops learned to run the plates and issued tickets if a Cincinnati address showed up for out-of-town plates.

The official stickers themselves caused problems. Until 1959, the Safety Lane glued an approved permit onto the windshield. The permits were so thick that thieves shaved them off and sold them to people driving junkers that would never pass inspection. Unfortunately, the replacement stickers were fragile decals that often disintegrated during application.

Citizens resented the Safety Lane’s hours (basically 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) that required them to take time from work to have their car inspected. Lunch hours invariably generated long lines. For many years, although Safety Lane stickers were dated, the city mailed reminders to motorists when it was time for an updated inspection, adding to the cost of operation.

Anthony M. Sauer, superintendent of the City Workhouse and Municipal Garage, exits a police car he has just driven into the brand-new Safety Lane in December 1939. After a four-month voluntary trial run, Cincinnati motorists were required to pass inspection twice yearly for the next 40 years.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The city was leisurely about updating its records, resulting in confusion, as reported by Si Cornell in The Cincinnati Post [June 24, 1964]. After waiting half an hour, inching his way forward in a long line of cars, a motorist realized he didn’t need to be there at all. The city reminder he received was for an old car he no longer owned, and the car he was driving had a brand new sticker. He explained this to the inspector, who waved his car through.

“But while Leo was thanking him, another eager attendant leaped into the auto and (as usual) scraped off Leo’s good sticker. They couldn’t give him another sticker since the car hadn’t been inspected. ‘I had to drive around and get in that long line again,’ said Leo.”

Motorists suspected that safety inspections were nothing but a money-making racket for the city and often complained about suspicious activity. A complaint to The Enquirer’s “Tell It To Bick” column [September 23, 1965] is typical:

“Although the Safety Lane sticker on our car had not expired, we put it through the lane; it was passed okay. Then we decided to put on some new tires. One wheel was about to fall off! If we had not put new tires on, there might have been a fatal accident. How can this pass the Safety Lane?”

A bribery scandal in 1960 tarnished the reputation of Safety Lane inspectors. Motorists complained that leaving a “tip” on the seat as the inspector drove the car through resulted in a rubber-stamped approval. One inspector implicated in the investigation killed himself.

Eventually, the cost of operating the Safety Lane far outstripped the funds accrued via nominal inspection fees. Automobiles, once relatively similar, evolved into variants as disparate as subcompacts and hulking SUVs. Equipment capable of testing this range proved expensive and balky. Research showed that driver error rather than vehicle condition caused most fatal accidents. In the early 1970s, the city considered shutting the Safety Lane just as the federal government imposed penalties on cities that failed to meet air pollution standards. New exhaust inspections were added to the checklist.

By 1980, the Safety Lane was losing $12,000 every month. After a few tight city budgets, the Safety Lane went on the chopping block. It was not mourned. The Post [February 20, 1981] rejoiced:

“One of the nicest things to happen so far in 1981 was the demise of the Cincinnati Safety Lane. For years it was a place where motorists wasted time, were relieved of their money, and sometimes were humiliated—apparently for no good reason at all.”

Just seven years later, a new inspection program, mandated by state and federal efforts to improve the city’s polluted air quality, went into effect. Auto emission testing stations opened at service stations and a few dedicated facilities. Air quality improved, and that program faded away eventually as well.

Paul Smith, who ran the Safety Lane for the last few years before it closed, remained convinced it saved lives. He told The Post [February 2, 1988]:

“We literally had to take some cars away from people because they were so unsafe. Some people would want to get physical with you about that. But they would come in with literally no brakes. You’d press the pedal and it would go all the way to the floor. And they would say, ‘Yeah, I know. Just hit ’em a couple of more times, they’ll work.’”

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