Sacramento Study Pollutes Truth over Auto Emissions

By Michael Fumento

Copyright 1996 Michael Fumento

  Print this  Print this    Make text larger    Make text smaller

The subject of how much air pollution it takes to harm human health is a controversial one. But what shouldn’t be controversial is that such pollution should be eliminated in the most efficient-cost effective manner. Right? Well, that’s what the University of Denver’s Professor Donald Stedman thought.

Stedman has developed a device which, when placed by the side of the road, can test how much pollution your car puts out as you drive by. High emissions trigger a video camera which films both the car and its license plate. This allows the municipality using the device to send a letter (perhaps backed by a fine) to the violator informing him that his car emits too much pollution and must be repaired.

The ability of remote sensing to "read" vehicle exhaust accurately and cheaply has been demonstrated repeatedly in the U.S. as well as in Canada and Great Britain. Stedman’s biggest problem is that his fragile device is seemingly incapable of breaking down the walls of a bureaucracy that bitterly dislikes anything that doesn’t involve monitoring absolutely everybody.

The bureaucratic approach is to toss a net over everybody so that they’ll be sure to grab the specific individuals they really want. This helps explain why every year the government tells us we’re all at risk for AIDS even as every year it puts out data saying the opposite.

One anti-air pollution "net" is to require all cars (sometimes exempting newer ones) to have scheduled emissions tests, either every year or every other year. One problem with such a test is that it is indeed scheduled. This allows it to be easily circumvented by pouring a commercial additive into the gas tank which is guaranteed to make even the dirtiest car pass the test. (No, I will not list the names of any products.) Or it can be avoided by tampering with some part of the exhaust system. You fix your system one way for the test, collect your shiny windshield sticker, and fix it back for the road. Try not to snicker too loudly while doing so.

Studies using remote sensing have found little or no difference between groups of cars that had recently been tested under scheduled emissions programs, and those that were about to be tested. The testing cleaned drivers’ pockets without cleaning up the air.

But now Sierra Research of Sacramento, California has presented a congressional subcommittee with its analysis of a study of the cars in that city. It praised the Environmental Protection Agency’s new testing device, called I/M240 (so-called because the test takes about 240 seconds), and essentially consigned the remote sensor to the junk heap. According to Sierra’s Tom Austin, "remote sensing basically flunks."

It was music to the bureaucrats’ ears. But it was also wrong. The remote sensor had simply failed a false bureaucratic standard that has nothing to do with reducing pollution.

Thus the Sierra report charged that, "Using mobile vans equipped with remote sensing devices, measurements could not be obtained on about 75% of pre-1980 model vehicles" during the nine-week test period. That makes it sound as if somehow these cars had stealth protection to make them invisible to the remote sensors. In fact, as Stedman so succinctly puts it, they were not detected "because they were not being driven [or rarely driven], and thus not important to air pollution."

Poor Dr. Stedman just doesn’t get it. Remember that the good bureaucrat wants to exercise control over everybody, even if it just means collecting data on them. That these cars didn’t show up in the net is the real transgression.

Sierra then went on to say that slightly over half of the cars marked by remote sensing as having flunked their tests didn’t deserve their failing grade. That is, they ran clean enough when re-tested by the I/M240. But this probably merely reflects the inadequacy of Sierra’s study. Notices sent to drivers who had failed the remote sensor let them know that retesting with the I/M240 was strictly voluntary. In fact, only about half of persons so notified brought their cars in. It stands to reason that those who were pretty darned sure their cars would fail a retest didn’t bother to show up. Thus the "false failure" rate of the cars under remote sensing could be almost half of what Sierra claims.

But even if all of those "false failures" really had been false, Stedman points out that remote sensing still makes a lot more sense than Sacramento’s I/M240. Under Sacramento’s plan, all cars must be tested every two years. Judging by the I/M240 plans in other cities such as Denver, only about 10 percent of cars will prove to need repairs, therefore I/M240’s version of a false failure rate is actually 90 percent! I/M240 testing programs assume everyone guilty until proven innocent, yet its supporters blast remote sensing for occasionally tapping someone as guilty who isn’t.

Further, while Stedman’s device cost taxpayers about $1 million to test half of the Sacramento area cars (and the most important half), I /M240 will cost $20 million over two years to test all cars. Remote sensing involves no inconvenience for the driver, while I/M240 involves a special trip to one of only a few stations in the city and then takes additional time for waiting in line and testing.

In terms of being a bureaucratic tool, Stedman’s sensor truly "has basically flunked." All it can do is help clean up the air at the lowest cost possible. Unfortunately, that may not be enough.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on fuels and pollution.