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Drivers Face Higher Smog Repair Costs

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITERS

As part of the state’s campaign against air pollution, California drivers whose vehicles fail smog inspections in 1990 will be required to make repairs of up to $175--a more than threefold increase from previous years--before the vehicles will be registered by the state.

A state law passed in 1989 established a new series of ceilings on repair costs, depending on the age of the vehicle. In past years, 30% of all vehicles that were tested failed smog inspections, and those that required repairs of more than $50 were given a waiver. Now, only vehicles manufactured from 1966, when emission control systems first were placed on cars, to 1971 will be subject to the $50 maximum.

The ceiling was raised to $90 for vehicles built from 1972 to 1974, $125 for those manufactured from 1975 to 1979 and $175 for models built in the 1980s. For 1990 vehicles, the ceiling will be $300, but the cost will be borne by the manufacturer under a state-required three-year or 50,000-mile warranty on new smog devices. There is no cost ceiling for vehicles with smog devices that have been tampered with, state officials said.

The new law, sponsored by Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside), was enacted in response to federal pressures to achieve national clean-air standards. Supporters say it will help reduce smog 25% by 1994 from 1984 levels. Since the smog check program was started in 1984, it has cut vehicle-induced air pollution by 17%, according to the state Bureau of Automotive Repair.

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“Generally, people understand the need for the program,” said John Waraas, chief of the bureau. “But never before in history have we asked every element in society to do so much in terms of difficult requirements.”

State officials nevertheless do not expect major problems with compliance. For most cars, they say, the average repair bill will be $25.

“I think it sounds worse than it’s actually going to be,” said bureau spokeswoman Kate McGuire.

In addition to raising the ceiling on repairs, the law for the first time requires that California’s 400,000 vehicles weighing as much as 8,500 pounds--including motor homes and commercial delivery vans--also pass smog checks when their registration comes up for renewal.

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Vehicles in the state’s smoggiest regions must pass emissions inspections every two years as a condition of their registration with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The biannual checks now are required throughout 12 California counties and in parts of 10 others. Beginning July 1, inspections will be required for the first time in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Merced and Stanislaus counties because of growing air pollution there.

Stations authorized to do smog checks--those with signs bearing a check symbol--can charge what they want for the inspection. State officials claim most charge about $20. The fee for the smog check certificate is an additional $6.

Under the new law, a waiver may be more difficult to obtain. Previously, the garage that checked the smog device granted waivers when the repair bill would be higher than the ceiling. Now, the owners of such vehicles will be sent to a “referee"--a private contractor paid by the state--who will examine the car a second time before a waiver can be granted.

The law also upgrades requirements for mechanics authorized to check smog systems. The state began testing 25,000 of these mechanics in September, and only about 55% of them passed the examination. As a result, some mechanics will be authorized to perform inspections only on older model cars where the smog systems are less complicated.

“We haven’t been able to bring along the mechanic in keeping up with the technology,” Waraas said.

Diesel vehicles, which are not required to have smog checks, eventually may come under the program. In September, the state will begin doing random roadside inspections of diesel trucks at weighing stations to determine if diesel-powered vehicles should be included.


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