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Roadside Sensors Sniff Out Polluters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A strange new curiosity is roving Ventura’s freeways.

It looks a bit like one of those machines that informs motorists just how fast they are speeding, but it is actually a remote smog sensor, the state’s latest weapon in the fight to clean up Southern California’s dirty air.

When a motorist drives past the equipment, an infrared beam reads the tailpipe emissions, measuring the level of ozone-forming gunk spewing out. If the vehicle’s hydrocarbon emissions are really bad--what the state terms a gross polluter--the beam triggers a camera, which takes a quick snapshot of the car’s license plate.

Eventually that information will be funneled to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which will send the car’s owner a letter recommending some maintenance on the vehicle. After three letters, the owner must go to a special inspection station and prove that mandatory improvements have been made.

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But Ventura County residents whose vehicles have a tendency to cough and spit need not panic, at least not yet.

The remote sensors are still being tested and won’t be fully operational until next fall. At this point, the state is rotating three sensors among freeways in the Los Angeles area, including Ventura County. Every car that drives by them gets photographed, regardless of its emissions. But nobody is being cited for contributing to the area’s ongoing smog problem.

“No letters will be sent out,” said Pat Larson, the enforcement manager for the state Bureau of Automotive Repairs’ tri-counties office. “We’re just trying to get a baseline for the population at large right now.”

On Friday, the sensors were stationed on the Hampshire Road onramp to the Ventura Freeway, causing a few drivers to swivel their heads and hit the brake pedal. The portable equipment gets bounced around the region; on Thursday the sensor appeared on an onramp to California 126, and earlier this week it drew stares on the Avenida de los Arboles onramp to the Moorpark Freeway in Thousand Oaks.

Operators like to place the sensor at onramps because cars are presumably warmed up and working just a little harder to climb onto the freeway, a good time to check emissions.

But the device can put a damper on traffic flows.

“Traffic slows down because people are wondering, ‘What is this?’ ” Larson said.

When the real program goes into effect, it will be less mysterious. Larson said a signboard a few yards down the road will flash at motorists, telling them whether their car’s emissions were good, fair or poor.

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“You’ll know if you are a gross polluter vehicle or if you have a little sweet-breath vehicle,” Larson said.

The monitoring by remote sensor, part of the new “Smog Check II” program, is being implemented by the state through the Bureau of Automotive Repairs. But it might help make the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District’s job a little easier.

“I think it is an excellent tool to enhance the smog check program,” said district head Dick Baldwin.

Baldwin explained that the remote sensors will never replace the traditional smog check program, in which motorists go to inspection stations every two years. But it could help eliminate a chronic problem: cheaters who pay off stations to get a clean bill of health for their polluting cars.

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“We know from checks and road audits that a number of cars are getting through the smog check program,” Baldwin said. “That’s because of fraud, intentional tampering, passing money under the table. It’s called ‘clean piping’ in the trade.”

The sensors can also be used to alert motorists between routine smog checks of mechanical malfunctions they might otherwise miss, he said.

“The remote-sensoring program is a tool that can help resolve all of these problems,” Baldwin said. “But I don’t think it will solve all of those problems. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of fraud or cheating.”

Remote sensors are expensive--Larson said they cost at least $100,000--so they won’t ever turn up on every freeway. Instead the state will rotate them among different areas. So it is possible that a motorist with a belching vehicle could avoid being nabbed.

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Then again, maybe not.


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