Tougher Auto Smog Checks Start Next Week


After months of delays, a tough new Smog Check program expected to significantly increase the number of cars that fail pollution tests will begin next Wednesday, state officials said Tuesday.

The program, which had become so controversial that only a last-minute political maneuver saved it from legislative annihilation, will be phased in gradually, officials said. Failure rates in the initial months will increase only modestly, to about 11%, from 9%, they said.

Martin Keller, chief of the Bureau of Automotive Repairs, which oversees Smog Check, said the big jump in failures will not come until both the motoring public and the automobile repair industry are thoroughly familiar with the new method of pollution testing.

"We're setting the failure points at the loosest possible levels in order to ease into this program," he said. "We don't have to get all the pollution reduced in one day. We have roughly six years to let the program do its job."

For motorists, the inauguration of the program known as Smog Check II will mean that cars in most of Southern California will be tested--and failed--for excessive emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) as well as hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.

Cars now are tested only for hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.

The additional testing for NOx, the chemical that makes smog brown and is a major component of acid rain, is the primary reason for the new program, which is expected to reduce pollution by an additional 110 tons a day by 2005.

Smog Check II, a public-private partnership between government and the auto repair industry, was created by the state to comply with 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, requiring the smoggiest areas in the nation to reduce auto emissions.

With 20 million vehicles and the worst air in the nation, California was threatened with the loss of $500 million in federal highway funds if it didn't comply.

Smog Check II required the new testing for regions of the state with the heaviest pollution--most of Southern California and parts of the Sacramento, Modesto, Fresno, Bakersfield, Davis and Vacaville areas.

Repair stations that opted to participate in the program were required to purchase a dynamometer that uses a treadmill-type device to simulate actual driving conditions.

The program became controversial after the original Dec. 1, 1997, start-up date was delayed because manufacturers couldn't deliver and install the new equipment on time. As the delays continued month after month, repair stations complained that they were getting little return on the $40,000 to $60,000 they had been forced to invest in the machine.

Although most repair stations raised their fees for smog checks, they contended that they were not getting any additional repair business as long as cars were not failed for excessive NOx emissions.

In the meantime, lawmakers acted to remove funding for the program, contending that its additional testing and repair requirements would create a consumer backlash. The effort was defeated in the last days of the legislative session.

Keller insisted that his decision to phase in the program slowly was prompted not by legislative opposition, but by the need to give the automotive industry time to gain experience in correcting excessive NOx emissions.

"And you don't do that by flooding them with failed vehicles," he said. "We want to take time and do it right."

But to the repair stations, the start-up is long overdue.

"We're absolutely tickled that they're finally getting this thing off the ground," said Christopher Walker, a lobbyist for the California Service Station and Automotive Repair Assn. "This is what we've invested our money for and this is what consumers are paying for."

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