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Smog - Air Today Gone Tomorrow? Well, at Least by 2010

14 July 1997

For all of those folks who live in Southern California SMOG ranks right up there after earthquakes and fires in making it a fun place to live. The on-going fight against SMOG in this part of the country might well be a model for the rest of the nation.

From a over-all perspective the SMOG problem has been around since the end of World War II and by 1965 had progressed to a serious state-of-emergency. In 1965, automobiles generated 45 to 50 percent of all the pollutant content contained in the air. Through better gasoline and cars, plus major legislation such as SMOG CHECK II in California, that percentage has been reduced to about 25 percent.

Corroborating studies show that in spite of increases in automobiles by 1% a year and mileage by 2.4% per year, total emissions continue to decrease each year.

This is due to new cars that are cleaner plus advanced technology in detection of SMOG. Older cars over 20 years old are being replaced at a rapid rate by newer cars within the 5 to 15 year category having SMOG deterrent devices promulgated by state and federal agencies.

You would think that with significant reduction from 228 pounds of SMOG per year per car in 1965 to only 7 pounds per year in 1996 the problem would literally evaporate. But with stringent federal standards set at an additional 30% reduction by 2010, we still have a long way to go.

To meet this deadline a multi-pronged approach has been outlined by California's industry and government officials in the following manner:

  • Manufacturers must continue to provide new cars with advanced and reliable emission systems.
  • Automotive repair shops must use state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment and make lasting repairs.
  • Motorists must maintain a high state of repair and maintenance.
  • Industry must continue to develop reformulated gasolines, alternative fuels and electric vehicles.
  • There must be a massive effort in attacking other polluting producers such as trucks, factories, buses and so on.
  • State and Federal legislation must be enforced and fairly implemented.

In an effort to meet the 2010 deadline California Air Resources Board (ARB) officials have legislated SMOG CHECK II to combat areas in California with the dirtiest air. This is an enhanced vehicle emission program starting in San Diego and Ventura counties early in 1997. Subsequently the program will be carried on in Los Angeles, Orange, and Inland Empire counties by the end of 1997.

Spelled out, 1966 and newer cars will be tested every other year at assigned testing centers geared to multi levels of SMOG emissions. 85% will be tested at local SMOG inspection shops; the remainder such as gross polluters will be sent to special test centers. About 2% of the above will be randomly tested.

In an unusual move the ARB is saying that older cars over 20 years old are becoming an endangered species and disappearing rapidly. Therefore starting in late 1997 they will probably be exempt from inspection because their total aggregate SMOG emission is relatively small compared to other sources.

For you techies the SMOG test equipment will use a dynamometer to more accurately calibrate emissions by duplicating actual driving conditions. Under SMOG CHECK II the predicted failure rate is 30% of all cars tested. Under current testing the failure rate is 18%

Strongly under consideration is SMOG testing "on-the-fly" with the utilization of "SMOG dogs" or RSDs. These are black boxes placed at entrances to freeways that measure emission by using infrared beams projected across the pavement. Coupled with automated cameras the results are logged automatically and immediately sent to SMOG enforcement agencies.

Ten of these at $100,000 each are now in Southern California with gross polluters named as the prime target. No citations have been made to date, but starting in 1998 that may change. As you can imagine this type of enforcement could open a legal can of worms. The jury is still out on proper procedure.

For those cars that fail all tests, state officials have a wonderful idea. They are seriously thinking of paying owners $400 to $700 per car to eliminate from the streets. To qualify you must first spend at least $450 on repairs.

Now we come to the saga of the gross polluter mentioned above. This is a vehicle that fails miserably and is so bad that you cannot by law register it with the DMV. The owner can spend as much as he or she wants to bring it into compliance. If the car fails again, the owner can apply for a one year "economic hardship extension" waiver. Within that time the car must again be brought into compliance. If it fails again it must be tested each year thereafter.

Keep in mind a gross polluter cannot be registered or insured legally. This can be disastrous in the case of an accident involving such a vehicle.

And how about all those diesel trucks that spew ugly black smoke regardless of legal attempts to curb their emissions. 4% of the truck population in California are diesels and they produce 30% of all emissions. Staggering stats!

It turns out that Federal laws have jurisdiction over California SMOG law because a major part of the existing truck fleet is engaged in inter-state commerce. Truckers have taken advantage of this position because all diesel trucks have been required to be "smokeless" since 1994 by the ARB.

Going into 2000 it appears that California will attain better air quality primarily because of the programs governing automobiles. However it remains to be seen how seriously the trucking industry will respond to public demands and state enforcement.

This article reflects the status of SMOG matters thru April of this year as reported by the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and the Automobile Club of Southern California

Gerald Levinson -- The Auto Channel