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Concerned Drivers Have Smoke-Spewers’ Number

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On his way to work Monday morning, Scott Hoganson spotted one of those nasty, smog-spewing, air-choking freeway clunkers that he believes are all too common on the Southern California highway system.

“It was an old Volkswagen van, and it was billowing this cloud of black smoke,” he said of the vehicle, which was heading south on Interstate 805 near the Golden Triangle. “And it wasn’t just an occasional puff. It was coughing a constant stream of soot.”

Hoganson didn’t get mad--he didn’t shake his head or even his fist. He just got even. Jockeying his car “through the fog bank” behind the van, the 39-year-old Escondido resident recorded its license number. Then he picked up his car telephone.

By punching a pre-programmed number, Hoganson was connected with an operator from the county’s Air Pollution Control District. He offered a description of the van, along with its license and location, and went on his way--having done his part to keep his hometown freeways unclogged by the offensive heaps and their billowing calling cards.

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Within a week, the county would send a letter to the van’s owner, with a request to repair the problem. If there are two more reports on the van within the next few weeks, the California Highway Patrol will be contacted.

These days, reporting smog offenders on the freeways has found a new calling. Last month, more than 2,000 people telephoned the 800-331-3383 number to participate in the county’s Smoking Vehicle program--the highest number since the effort was begun in March, 1989, and almost double the monthly average.

Hoganson, a PacTel Cellular executive who last year helped pave the way for cellular phones to be used in the program, says owners of car telephones--the people most drivers love to hate--are making a difference in the freeway anti-pollution effort.

Last year, the more than 60,000 cellular phone owners throughout San Diego County averaged 40 calls a month to the Smoking Vehicle program, he said. In the first five months of 1990, those calls jumped to more than 470 a month--a more than tenfold increase.

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“It’s become a way to do something about these people who are carelessly making San Diego a less beautiful place to live,” said Hoganson, area vice president for PacTel Cellular in University City.

“Now you can do more than shake your fist; you can pick up your cellular telephone. Drivers with car phones cover a lot more ground than those sitting at home. We have a citizens patrol out there. And they’re reporting things they see.”

He acknowledges, however, that the bureaucracy in place to prosecute the freeway polluters has yet to catch up with the torrid pace set by the cellular snitches. Although the calls continue to come in, the CHP acknowledges that it has little means of bagging repeat offenders.

And workers in the Smoking Vehicle program say obstacles remain in matching the success of similar initiatives in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

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For example, one full-time worker must report personally to the state Department of Motor Vehicles each day--license numbers in hand--to research the mailing address of each violator before a warning letter can be sent out.

“We’re trying to get a direct modem into DMV, but, until we do, we have to hand-jockey each license number,” said Bob Goggin, a spokesman for the Air Pollution Control District. “We’re still getting the letters out on time. It’s just a matter of making the program more efficient.”

Fewer than half the reported offenders respond to the county’s letters, which ask owners to report back on repairs on their emission problems and explain that the county’s 2 million motor vehicles generate most of the area’s air pollution. Officials are left unsure as to just how many people actually fix their vehicles.

Officials would like to see the response rate rise to that of several Los Angeles-area programs, some of which have an 80% motorist response rate, Goggin said.

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“Los Angeles has a more serious pollution problem,” he said. “There’s just a different arrangement up there.”

In Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties, the state-funded South Coast Air Quality Management District contracts with the CHP to send a team of a dozen unmarked cars onto the region’s freeways with the sole job of seeking out highway polluters.

Although San Diego-area CHP officers will ticket smog-emitting vehicles they happen to spot, the agency only becomes involved when it receives notice from the county stating that a vehicle has had at least three reports of excessive emissions, according to Jerry Bohrer, a CHP spokesman in Oceanside.

But another CHP officer said Monday that only 53 letters were referred to the agency last year through the Smoking Vehicle program.

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“I thought there would be more,” Officer Tim Santillan said.

He added that there are problems in locating an offender even once a notice has been received from the county.

“Once we track the license down, we usually find that the guy sold his car months or even years before,” he said. “And so the guy who owns the car now wasn’t able to pass vehicle inspection because of the emission problems. So he just drives the car without an inspection. It’s a real problem because we haven’t been able to track many of them down--80% just get away.

“The only way to get these guys is to catch them red-handed--by having an officer pull them over driving their cars.”

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Goggin acknowledged that the region’s almost perfect weather does not make the county’s job any easier.

“Unlike other areas, where the bad weather sets in, most people here can just keep driving cars that aren’t in the greatest condition without fear of the snow and cold weather shutting them down,” he said.

Nonetheless, county officials are encouraged by the recent shot in the arm the increased enthusiasm in the Smoking Vehicle program has given them.

The number of reports rose to 1,800 in April and hit an all-time high of 2,000 in May--thanks to promotions by local organizations such as the American Lung Assn. and increased environmental consciousness following Earth Day, Goggin said.

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