Whomever Wins the Smog Test Fight, Drivers and Breathers Will Lose

By Michael Fumento

Investor’s Business Daily, October 23, 1993
Copyright 1993 Investor’s Business Daily

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It could be called the "War of the Gargantuas".

The federal EPA and the nation’s most populated — and polluted — state, California, are facing off over the federal agency’s demand that California adopt new vehicle emissions testing. Who will win is anybody’s guess. But critics say that either way, the real loser could be California drivers and breathers. They say that in what has become business as usual for environmental bureaucrats, programs that would actually improve air quality at a lower cost are being ignored.

"It’s absolutely silly for these agencies to fight over things that are probably trivial and don’t make a whit of difference for air quality," said Douglas Lawson, a research professor at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.

Under the current "Smog Check" system in California and many of parts of the country, car owners are required periodically (every two years in California, every year in most places) to have their emissions systems checked at gas stations or other small businesses. If the emissions are too high and the cost of repair is not overly expensive, owners are required to have their systems fixed before they can be certified and get their registration renewed. There are an estimated 9,000 facilities doing Smog Check.

The fight between the EPA and California arises out of requirements of the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act. These mandate that areas in the country with high levels of air pollution, including large parts of California, operate an emissions inspection program "on a centralized basis, unless the state demonstrates to the satisfaction of the [EPA] Administrator that a decentralized program will be equally effective."

While the EPA says it isn’t trying to force centralization on the state, the cost of the new equipment, called the IM240, is so prohibitively high that the traditional "mom and pop" places can’t afford them. CalEPA in Sacramento estimates that only 200 to 250 shops run either by the government or government contractors will have the new equipment, and thus the system will be centralized.

California has been given until November 15 to begin implementing this system, or face losing $600 to $800 million in federal highway construction funds.

"This is one of the worst examples where the EPA has made an attempt not at all required by the Clean Air Act to force one method of inspection on all states," said James Strock, director of CalEPA.

The state wants to continue using its present system, albeit with safeguards to prevent fraud such as putting the system on a statewide computer system. This would prevent such current practices as Smog Check stations simply selling certificates.

Strock admits this is partly a matter of economics, in that a many jobs would be lost under the new system. But he says he is not at all convinced that the new system will be much more accurate than the old, citing a study of the Santa Monica-based Rand Corporation.

That study, released in August, found that the Smog Check tests "perform nearly as well," as the old, and that the polluting cars identified with the new testing equipment "tend to be difficult and expensive to repair" at any rate. It said that considering the new equipment is three to six times more expensive than the old, the old equipment is "a cost effective alternate."

According to another study, released in August by the University of California at Irvine, "Though the IM240 test is more accurate than the BAR90 test (used in Smog Check and other emissions testing facilities throughout the country), the consequences of this difference are not large."

But another reason the Rand Corporation and the Irvine study found that the current test is little worse than the old one is that both appear to be fairly useless.

Evidence for this comes from random roadside surveys which the state conducted over the last four years. These found that cars in parts of the state with Smog Check programs were more likely to have excessive emissions than those without such programs.

Separate surveys in 1989 and 1991 found that cars which were scheduled to receive a Smog Check test within the next 90 days had a failure rate lower than that of cars that had just received Smog Check certification within the previous 90 days.

According to Lawson, who conducted those last two studies, "Essentially what we see is that when you stop cars at random in California, you cannot see any effect of Smog Check on emissions."

The reason, according to Lawson and other researchers who have come to the same conclusion, is that scheduled tests make for easy cheating. For example, a vacuum hose which is normally disconnected and blocked at the end to provide better mileage or performance can be reconnected right before the test and disconnected again right after.

No scheduled test, no matter how accurate, can prevent such cheating, as EPA’s own studies show.

Noted Lawson, "In Phoenix, Arizona tampering with the centralized program was 25% for 1989, while in Milwaukee decentralized was 15% for 1989, Louisville in 1990 centralized was 16%, San Diego for 1989 11%, Bakersfield 16%. Santa Barbara, with no program at all, 11%."

"From those data can you tell me that centralized is better than decentralized or better than no program at all?" said Lawson.

The University
of Denver’s
Donald Stedman

Richard Wilson, director of the Mobile Source Office of the EPA in Washington, D.C., said that such tampering is no longer a problem now that gasoline with lead is no longer sold, because it was efforts to not use unleaded gasoline that led to the tampering. But Donald Stedman, a professor of chemistry at the University of Denver specializing in vehicle emissions, says tampering continues unabated. "The best example is a high tech computer chip they advertise in newspapers," he said. "Also, you can also stuff a BB down the vaccum hose. I have a whole book right here entitled "How to Disconnect your GM Emission Control System," he said.

The UC Irvine report also concludes that "California’s current inspection systems is designed to assure that cars are clean one day every two years — the inspection day. The report says that periodic testing, be it California’s BAR 90 or the EPA’s IM240 "is akin to a program that ’controls’ drunken driving by scheduling drivers for a breathalyzer test every two years."

Strock agrees that the current Smog Check program has severe problems.

"I think we need to put more of our resources into enforcement and less into inspection," said Strock. He says that a far better system than the EPA one would be to retain the current California system, add anti-fraud regulations, and additionally adopt remote testing. That is the plan that the state has offered to the EPA as its effort to comply with the Clean Air Act.

The remote testing device, developed by Stedman and others at the University of Denver, is placed at the side of the road and measures various emissions with an infrared beam as the vehicle passes by. Numerous tests in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown that, coupled to a camera that photographs the vehicle’s plate, remote sensing can detect and identify cars exceeding pollution standards.

Indeed, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has already used it to detect fraud on the part of taxi owners and the emissions sta- tions which tested the vehicles.

The advantage of the device, explains Stedman, "is that no one knows when they will be tested. Further, since only about 10% of cars on the road emit about half the pollution, we aren’t penalizing the great majority of clean- running vehicles by subjecting them to expensive tests."

According to the EPA’s own statements, 85% of the cars on the road are clean enough to be ignored.

Stedman’s device is also considerably cheaper than inspection and maintenance testing. Both Smog Check and the EPA’s proposed program cost or would cost just under $30 per driver every other year, plus several dollars more in administrative costs. The remote sensing device costs 50 cents or less per test, although ideally each car would on average be tested several times a year.

Both the Rand Corporation and the UC Irvine study recommend using remote sensing to supplement the current California system, instead of replacing the current system with EPA’s centralized one. The EPA opposed remote sensing for years before Congress wrote in into the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. Now it makes it part of the centralized plan, but requires only enough monitoring to check one half of one percent of all cars tested in a certain area in a given year, which in California would be one quarter of one percent since testing is every other year. "It’s the minimum they could get away with," said Stedman. "It’s utterly absurd."

Full remote sensing would test each car on average six times per year.

Indeed, researchers working for neither the EPA nor the State of California tend to agree with Stedman’s assessment that remote sensors should be the heart of an emissions testing program, with the currently-used devices being used to confirm that needed repairs have been made.

Lynn Scarlett, research director at the free enterprise Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, is a big fan of remote sensing. But she also thinks that the state and other parts of the country with air pollution problems need to start looking beyond emissions testing altogether.

"Clearly remote sensing has role to play," said Scarlett.

"But we’ve got to start seeing roads as a scarce resource and stop having freeways that people treat as free. We need to think of roads as telephone lines."

Telephone companies, she notes, charge more for calls at peak periods to spread out their business. Likewise power companies, airlines, hotels, and many other industries charge more during peak use.

Peak pricing for vehicles, said Scarlett, "would have an effect on congestion and to a degree faster moving vehicles generate less pollution."

Studies by both the EPA and CARB show that overall slower moving traffic, especially that involving braking and accelerating, contributes to pollution.

"Further," she said, "congestive prices saves people time."

California has a ridesharing encouragement program, but Scarlett finds its results unimpressive. "The estimate is that it’s costing about $3,000 per reduction in vehicle trip," said Scarlett. "There’s a general and growing consensus that there are limits to getting people out of cars and into carpools with no economic incentives. Congestive pricing also would be incentive to public transit or to car pool or to move closer to work."

Some cities are already using various schemes to charge vehicles for entering crowded areas. Scarlett suggests that a remote electronic metering system could be put to work in areas where states want to charge for using certain routes at certain times of day.

Another idea that Scarlett and others tout is forcing employers to charge for parking while having their salary raised to compensate. Those who continue to drive would not be penalized but those taking alternative means of transportation would be pocketing extra money.

Unfortunately, she says, while all these things might help clear the air, they do nothing to get the state of California — or other states — off the hook with the EPA. Thus, she says, in the short run she backs the state’s plan to continue the Smog Check program with added remote testing and fraud protections.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the EPA, on alternative fuels, and on pollution.