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They’re Lost in a Fog of Smog

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As many as 120,000 California motorists have been notified that they will need to get smog tests on their cars after Jan. 1--despite a new state law that exempts their vehicles.

You can blame it on politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats and computers--a menacing combination in any situation--but it all adds up to a confusing mess that affects owners of newer and older cars across California.

Under a recently enacted state law, cars from model year 1973 and earlier, and from model years ’95 through ’98, will be exempt from smog test requirements starting Jan. 1.

Simple enough--sort of. But the California Department of Motor Vehicles has sent notices to owners of exempt vehicles that are due for new registration in the first months of ’98, warning them that they need to get smog certificates.

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“Is this a Catch-22 or what?,” asks Steve Lee of La Habra, who was notified that he needs a smog test on his 1970 VW Bug that comes up for registration renewal on Jan. 14. In fact, Lee’s venerable Bug is exempt, and he doesn’t need to waste his time or money getting a smog test.

The folks over at DMV say they were jammed by the fast-track legislation that was passed and signed into law on Oct. 9.

Normally, DMV sends its notices for registration renewal three months early, to give car owners plenty of time to get their smog tests and to receive their new tags, said Tom Weibel, chief of DMV’s registration policy and automation development.

So, Weibel said, by the time the law changed on Oct. 9, the agency already was sending out notices for registrations that expire in January, when the new law takes effect. In addition, DMV needs about three months to reprogram its computers to handle changes in the law.

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“It is an awkward situation for us,” Weibel said.

To make matters even more ridiculous, he continued, the agency cannot legally process a new smog exemption until the law takes effect Jan. 1. So if the owner of an exempt vehicle mails his renewal in December, the old rules still apply. But if the renewal forms arrive in January, the exemption applies, Weibel said.

He estimates that 90,000 to 120,000 vehicle owners received the seemingly incorrect notices.

The picture gets even stranger when you hear the advice state bureaucrats offer to these motorists: Wait until Jan. 1 to mail in your renewal for tags, and stick a little note in the envelope explaining to DMV that your vehicle is exempt.

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But that’s risky, because it’s not certain that motorists whose registrations come up for renewal in January will get new tags before their old ones expire at the end of the month.

DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff suggests, in all seriousness, that motorists keep their canceled checks from their registration fees on hand in case they end up battling the state bureaucracy. If you do not receive your tags, you’ll have to contact your local DMV office. Good luck.

And try explaining all this to the police if you are stopped for driving on expired tags. Weibel said that most police agencies have an unwritten policy of giving drivers a two-month grace period before issuing tickets for expired tags.

However, he added, “we cannot guarantee that every cop on every beat is going to observe that.”

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CHP spokeswoman Ann Richards said motorists who find themselves driving on expired tags should keep photocopies of their DMV renewal checks with them. She said the Highway Patrol “would not be stopping motorists immediately upon expiration of their tags.”

In the worst case, Nossoff added, “even if they get ticketed, all they have to do is take their case to court.”

That sounds like fun.

The smog test program is actually administered by the Bureau of Automotive Repair, which claims that the software used in test stations will prevent an exempt vehicle from getting an unneeded smog test.

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“The software will lock out the vehicle,” says Russ Heimerich, the bureau’s public information officer. But that safeguard will not be operative until Jan. 1, leaving thousands of motorists subject to paying for unnecessary smog tests over the next several weeks.

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A number of motorists have written to Your Wheels asking about a new state law that provides financial assistance for low-income motorists whose vehicles flunk the new smog tests.

Under the new law, a special state fund will provide assistance for car repairs to qualified motorists after they pay an initial $250. But the regulations for this program are still pending public hearings, and the assistance is not expected to be available until March.

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Low income is defined as motorists earning less than 175% of the poverty level income, or $27,000 for a family of four. But unlike past low-income assistance programs, this time motorists will have to offer proof of their income. State officials have not yet decided whether they will require actual tax returns or some other type of proof, Heimerich said.

Once the system is in place, information can be obtained by calling a smog test referee center at (800) 952-5210. More info is available on the Internet, at https://www.smogcheck.org.

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* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. No. 1100, Washington, D.C. 20006, or e-mail Ralph.Vartabedian@latimes.com.

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