Mechanics Fail on Smog Test, Study Finds

Times Staff Writer

The state's smog check vehicle inspection program appears to be producing better emission results in San Diego and San Francisco than in the greater Los Angeles area, but mechanics throughout the state are failing to find most tampered pollution control systems, according to a study done for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The report raises new questions about the adequacy of mechanic training and the effectiveness of the mandatory smog check program, which is the centerpiece of California's efforts to reduce vehicular air pollution.

Its conclusions surfaced Wednesday as the state Bureau of Automotive Repair kicked off a public celebration of the second anniversary of the smog check program with an announcement that vehicle emissions from inspected cars had declined an average of 14% as a result of repairs.

The bureau also announced a $1 reduction, effective May 1, in the current $6 fee for the smog check proof-of-inspection certificate required to renew vehicle registration. Cars 20 years old or less must be inspected every other year; cars older than 20 years and diesels are exempt.

State officials believe, based on roadside inspections, that as many as a third of uninspected cars in Southern California may have tampered pollution systems, apparently in the mistaken belief that disconnecting smog control devices will improve performance, they said.

To assess how well California mechanics are detecting tampered smog devices, 1,000 vehicles with known tampered parts were sent to smog check stations throughout the state.

According to the report to the EPA, prepared by the Radian Corp. of Austin, Tex., mechanics uncovered only 43% of tampered catalytic converters, 59% of tampered air injection systems, 29% of tampered evaporative control systems, 13% of tampered fuel inlet restrictors, 24% of tampered pollution control valves and 22% of tampered exhaust gas recirculation devices.

"The biggest consumer problem is (mechanic) incompetence. I don't think many people are crooks. But a lot of people aren't very well trained," said John Grow, chief of the Bureau of Automotive Repair, in a telephone interview from Sacramento.

He called for more rigorous training of mechanics by his bureau.

Grow also served notice that beginning in May, the Bureau of Automotive Repairs will begin directly citing smog check operators who ignore or fail to detect tampering of smog devices. Currently, such complaints are sent to local district attorneys or the state attorney general, a process that Grow said often takes 15 months to bring to a close.

Beginning in September, mechanics will be directed to make longer-lasting repairs to smog control systems. Currently, he said, many mechanics do just enough to allow the car to pass the test.

While both the Bureau of Automotive Repair and the South Coast Air Quality Management District applauded the air quality gains from the smog check program, officials agreed that more had to be done.

"It's the best program in the country, but we have the worst problem in the country, so maybe that's not good enough for us," Jim Birakos, a spokesman for the air district, said Wednesday.

The report said the smog check program appeared to be more successful in reducing vehicle emissions in San Diego and San Francisco than in Los Angeles, probably as a result of better training.

It said repairs on cars that had been inspected in San Diego and San Francisco resulted in "significantly" lower emissions of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide than cars in the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The only exception in which the performance of Los Angeles smog check stations appeared to match those in other metropolitan areas involved reducing carbon monoxide emissions in cars built before 1975.

The report suggested that possibly the mechanic training programs in San Diego and San Francisco were more effective than those in Los Angeles because Los Angeles mechanics who have long been involved in various vehicle inspection programs may not have paid as close attention as those in San Diego and San Francisco, where such programs were new.

Grow said the overall 14% reduction in vehicle emissions achieved by the smog check program in its first two years of operation was a good start.

"I think this is probably a conservative figure, and although it's not exciting, it's probably close to being honest," Grow said.

However, the 14% figure is based on emission reductions achieved immediately after repairs, as required by the smog check program, and does not take into account any deterioration in performance in the two years before the next required inspection. Thus, the 14% reduction may well be lower, Grow conceded.

More than 10 million cars have gone through the smog check program, an average of 20,000 vehicles-a-day, and the bureau reported that 72% of motorists it surveyed supported the smog check program, while 92% were reportedly satisfied with the service they received.

The bureau said Wednesday that the average statewide cost of the inspection has gone down to $21.68 from the $24.19 average when the program began in 1984. The average cost of repairs, which is additional, is $24.

Under the law, repairs cannot exceed $50, unless the vehicle's emission control systems have been tampered with or disconnected.

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