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 of the experts, about half the emissions come from a mere ten percent of the vehicles, and taking action against the worst of them can't help but have a salutary effect. But the cleanup costs serious money:

No, you will not get pulled out of your car, handcuffed and sent to the Twin Towers for spewing out too much crud. But you will get a polite letter in the mail, suggesting you volunteer for a program that will pay for up to $500 in emission system control repairs or $1,000 to take your vehicle off the road permanently. The program began in March and so far 2,000 letters have been sent out, resulting in a couple hundred vehicles being repaired and a few dozen scrapped.

The Federal emissions warranty covers expensive things like catalytic converters for eight years or 80,000 miles. But it's not always the cats that fail, and 80,000 miles is nothing these days. (Replacing out-of-spec emissions equipment in my current car — seven years old, 102,000 miles — has cost me $1,700.) So the offer of $500 might not be anywhere nearly enough to fix an individual problem.

I expect the usual rumblings about Big Brother going around sniffing your car's hindquarters, and yes, that is a concern if you're a firm believer in slippery slopes. (Which I wasn't before, but I'm starting to become one.) But I figure this program will be short-lived at best, and you can start the countdown to its demise the day that the sniffers pick up a vehicle which turns out to be owned by a person whose immigration status is questionable (to put it as charitably as possible) and who is able to attract the attention of the usual Southern California race-baiters and publicity hounds. There will be a brief outcry, Sacramento will issue various meaningless statements, and when the volume has died down, AQMD will quietly park its vans and go complain to the Assembly that they need more tools to fight smog. This is not the reason I no longer live in California, but it's a pretty good one just the same.

The Vent

  23 September 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill