California Smog Inspection Is A Joke

Way back in 1991, I went to work for the California Bureau of Automotive Repair. My focus over the years, until I was forced out (a long, sordid story), was the Smog Inspection Program and Consumer Protection. I think I did a very good job.

Now it may seem odd for a guy who loves performance cars to work on the enforcement of smog laws. I've always been of multiple minds when it comes to cars - I hate pollution and love performance cars. I like older cars and they pollute much more than new cars. So I'm a walking contradiction.

In my years of trying to enforce the laws and regulations governing the smog inspection program I used whatever I could to identify the shops that were certifying cars that wouldn't pass or that had been modified.

Perhaps the most fruitful was identifying cars that had been illegally modified and tracking where they received their certification. I admit I was a pain in the ass to some hot rodders. I'd attend car shows and document cars that were obviously illegal. At first it was pretty easy. I'd snap a picture of the modification and the license plate. I'd know when the registration had to be renewed and I'd run the plate to identify the shop that smogged the car.

But then word got around that someone was tracking cars and the cagey car owners took the license plates off their cars. Not a big problem; I'd take a snap of their V.I.N. tag. Then I noticed that pieces of paper were laid over the dash V.I.N. tag.

I got pretty good at spotting illegally modified vehicles on the street. I contacted the District Attorney's office and was told that as long as a vehicle was on public property, or I was on public property and could see under a vehicle (to see if the catalytic converter was intact) I had a legal right to inspect vehicles. I could not touch any vehicle without the owner's permission but looking was legal. And any vehicle on display at a car show was fair game.

My methods resulted in a fair number of legal actions against smog stations and technicians over the years. They also resulted in a fair number of vehicles that had to be brought into compliance. DMV agreed to put registration stops on almost 200 vehicles I identified as illegally modified. Their registration could not be renewed until they were inspected and certified by a Bureau Referee.

All of this came to a rather ignominious end when, after four cars I'd identified, were certified by the same shop in Palo Alto. The Santa Clara District Attorney charged not only the smog station and technician but all four vehicle owners. Although it was not my case (I worked in San Francisco and San Mateo Counties, not Santa Clara) and no one in the Bureau has jurisdiction over a District Attorney, the BAR Chief at that time blew his top that "we" had charged consumers. Of course "we" hadn't charged anyone, the D.A. had. All the registration stops I had placed were removed and I was in the doghouse.

But all of this is old news. Or is it?

Today I'm retired. I work part-time at an auto parts house; I've done so for about five years. I see a large number of illegally modified cars. And I don't see any fear of getting caught. People are open about the modifications and the fact that it's easy to get an illegal smog certificate.

Part of the blame has to go to the legislature that exempted cars six years old or newer from a biennial inspection, four year old or newer vehicles from all inspections, and 1975 and older vehicles from inspections. That's a whole bunch of cars that are exempt. Californians buy around 2-million new cars every year; that means about eight million cars that do not need any inspection for four years.

 Now you may ask, "who's going to modify a new car?" The answer is a lot of people, usually those with performance cars. As for cars from '75 or before, well they are fair game. Add in all the modified cars in between and you have literally millions of potential polluters. The actual number is most likely in the thousands.

Here's some ads from Craigslist:
1975 chevrolet camaro LT condition: good no rust at all 
cylinders: 8 cylinders 
Color: red 
fuel: gas
350 small block with flow masters 
odometer: 3500 miles on new motor and transmission 
350 turbo transmission with a B&M quick shifter 
New air cleaner holly carburetor
Brand new carpet kit with Dynamat on the floor and door panels
This is 1975 so NO SMOG needed. You can add blower on the engine or modify the engine as much as you want without worrying it won't pass the smog.

1975 Chevy Corvette stingray. 2 Doors 
Pre smog ( no smog needed ) 
Under the hood 
V8 beefed up to be balanced up to 9k RPM
Automatic transmission with quick launcher 
NoZ set up !! 
Tuned and ready to kick some but anywhere !
9" Rear differential 
Extra set of track tires (slicks for the rear, pizza cutters for the front )
Roller cage 
5 point seatbelt with a bucket seat 
T Tops 
Smog Exempt !! 

The number of illegally modified cars is long. Check any model specific forum and you will find threads of how to modify specific cars (WRX STi, Evos, 5.0s, etc) to pass smog or easily swap legal parts in and out for a smog inspection.

No one enforces California Vehicle Code Section 27156 (makes it illegal to operate an illegally modified vehicle). Yes some jurisdictions use it as a means to go after street racers but there is no coordination between those jurisdictions and the Bureau usually. Bureau employees are not cops so they do not have the power to cite vehicle owners.

It is the Bureau of Automotive Repairs job to prevent the illegal certification of these vehicles. From what I hear almost daily they are doing a terrible job. How else can you explain the ease so many have of getting illegal cars certified? It's obvious that the bad smog stations do not fear the Bureau.

In my opinion there needs to be a change in the enforcement of the smog laws. There are too many parties involved - the California Air Resources Board (CARB), Bureau of Automotive Repair, and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Then throw in the Legislature where laws are made.

The Bureau has always contended that their jurisdiction only encompasses Automotive Repair Dealers and Smog Inspection Stations; not vehicle owners. Vehicle owners are the responsibility of DMV and police; both basically say they are too busy with other issues to worry about some vehicles that may have received an illegal smog certificate.

If the Bureau of Automotive Repair and state legislators think things are just hunky dory in smog inspection land they are living in a fool's paradise. I've been in California since 1990 and I worked for the state until 2010. In all those years I have seen the Bureau's enforcement go downhill in my opinion.

Experts tell us we have been witnessing the effects of climate change with all the natural disasters this year. Governor Brown has made his position on the Kyoto Protocol perfectly clear. It's time for California to get back on track with its Smog Check Program. It's time to start enforcing the laws.


Anonymous said…
Oppose AB 1274 (O’Donnell) unless Amended

95377_guy said…
Good writeup. You can go on a number of facebook groups and get a contact on which mechanic or smog shop in town will get you past a smog check
mike barry said…
Hi, Bruce.

Although I don't fully agree with the title of your post, I have a lot of respect for your candor and dedication, and I find it very frustrating to learn that you wound up in "the dog house" for taking some creative initiative. I have been a CA smog tech for 16 years, and I have failed a lot of modified vehicles. Unfortunately, I have also passed a lot of vehicles which appeared to be very recently "un-modified", and were highly likely to be "re-modified" after I was through.

It just goes with the territory, I guess, but I triple-dog-dare anyone, BAR or otherwise, to call me dirty to my face. My shop is in a "ghetto" neighborhood, and the customers here either cannot or will not take proper maintenance and repair as a serious matter. I used to be disappointed but also mildly amused at the neglect and incompetence I witnessed on the behalf of the vehicle owners, but for the last five years I have been infuriated by the STAR's FuPR metric, which basically has labeled me as a dishonest and/or incompetent fool, based solely on the inspection results of vehicles two years after they manage to certify (barely but 100% legitimately) at my shop. After an initial e-mail rant to the STAR team in December 2011, I calmed down enough to organize my thoughts a bit better, in an 11-page letter:

To the best of my knowledge, none of my points have received any detailed attention from anyone qualified to do anything useful with them. Your thoughts, sir?

Anonymous said…
I agree with stopping gross polluters but CA has really ridiculous smog laws, most of which are not for the purposes of reducing smog but to make money. Their laws stop people whom own older cars after 1975 from upgrading their vehicles to be more efficient and run cleaner with better performance. If I want to run a new EFI engine into a carburated 1986 Chevy, it would easily pass the sniffer for the year of the car but not pass the visual which is ridiculous. The point of the law is to get people to run cleaner cars, not punish them for trying to do so and forcing them to run old gross polluters if they want to keep them. BAR is far too strict when it comes to approving engine swaps. If the car is over 30 years old and it passes the original emissions standards cleaner than the original stock motor with a new engine and nothing was leaking, what difference does it make whether it passes the visual? As long as the engine is from a new car of the same manufacturer and the engine matches the type of vehicle (ie car engine for a car and not a truck), it should make sense.
People love their old cars because they have memories attached to them. Why not encourage the owners of these old polluters to swap out for newer more efficient engines? All the engines with better technologies today are more efficient, powerful, and cleaner than those 30 year old cars. Let owners of these cars modify their cars for the better.

I know that separately some people want to get rid of their vehicle's cats which are a prime component of smog control. Those people are in the wrong and should be forced to compliance but BAR and CA are also punishing those who believe in clean air and performance at the same time.

Just my 2 cents.

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