In 1988, I moved to Southern California, and perforce had to deal with the Department of Motor Vehicles — twice. The driver's test was no big deal: I showed up one morning in Torrance, selected English from the ten or eleven test languages offered, and began filling in the dots. Vehicle registration was another matter, though, inasmuch as my vehicle, a thirteen-year-old Toyota Celica with some ungodly number of miles, was what they called a "49-state" car. The '75 Celica in the rest of the country got by with air injection and entirely too many vacuum lines, but the California Celica for that model year had a full-fledged catalytic converter. Hoping I wouldn't have to rip out the entire exhaust system, I duly presented myself and poor Dymphna to an inspection station in Redondo Beach, where, after two or three tries on the machine, the wizard in charge presented me with an actual California smog certificate, good for two years. I was delighted, of course, but at the same time I wondered just how strict these standards really were if my old beater could pass them.

I'm still wondering. A couple of years ago, I tossed out this bouquet to the California smog patrol:

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has apparently figured out that pushing for next-to-nonexistent emissions levels in new vehicles doesn't do a blessed thing for actual South Coast air quality. While they're not going to relax the standards they have, the District's board has decided to go after real polluters: remote emissions-sensing devices will be placed in random locations in four smog-prone counties and will sniff out the dirtiest exhausts.

It took a while, but AQMD is now monitoring emissions remotely at several freeway ramps in the Los Angeles basin, and they're finding that a lot of cars that fail the remote test actually did have smog certificates:

A report last October by a little-known state agency — the California Inspection & Maintenance Review Committee, a unit of the Department of Consumer Affairs — found that 40% of the vehicles that failed a smog test and then passed after repairs were made to the emission control system were once again out of compliance just weeks or months later.

This, said Dean Saito, who heads up AQMD's remote-monitoring project, can mean one of two things: the repairs are not fixing the root cause of the problem, or the owners are somehow gaming the system. I suspect that there are plenty of instances of both.

In general, I tend to support this sort of thing. By the reckoning of most o