Are We Doing Enough To Curb Air Pollution?

"Southern California violated federal smog standards for 87 consecutive days this summer, the longest stretch of bad air in two decades. It's a sign that efforts to curb smog have been faltering after decades of improvement. "There’s no question that people with pre-existing lung diseases, particularly asthmatics, have had a harder time this year," a public health expert said." Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2018.

No one is blaming motor vehicles for all the smog, in fact regulators blame at least some of it on hotter weather, i.e. global climate change. But I have to wonder.

I am not a scientist nor do I know of any study that would show how much of the air pollution is due to motor vehicles. No I only have my personal observations and my personal observations are that no one is policing motor vehicles.

In my every day life, in my little corner of California, I see more and more pollution spewing vehicles on the road. Some of them are not in the smog inspection program, some are. Both are a part of the problem.

In my opinion a big part of the problem is enforcement. Not just of the smog inspection program but of smog spewing vehicles, modified or not. No agency, no police department, is tasked with targeting polluting vehicles. The California Vehicle code section 27156 does not exempt any specific vehicle or group of vehicles. Yes the Bureau of Automotive Repair (B.A.R.) has roadside inspections but it is by code an audit (Health and Safety Code - HSC § 44081) not a form of enforcement.

Police departments have the right to issue "fix-it" tickets to any vehicle that does not meet any requirement of the vehicle code. They rarely do though mostly because traffic stops seem to be on the decline. I attribute this to fewer officers per capita (just an observation) and "crimes" having to be prioritized.

The B.A.R. is supposed to investigate smog stations that cheat, those that deliberately pass vehicles that should not pass. They investigate based on various reasons but it is my assertion that they miss a critical clue - modified, or polluting vehicles on the road.

I worked for the B.A.R. until I was removed because I was appointed to the Inspection and Maintenance Review Committee (IMRC), an advisory committee for the smog inspection program. In my area, mostly San Mateo County, I was fairly successful at ferreting out smog stations that were illegally issuing smog certificates. I used a variety of ways of identifying these stations; one of my most successful was following the cars. I collected a list of vehicles that I knew would not pass a legal smog inspection. Most were modified vehicles but some were just junk. 

My aim was twofold. First to identify the stations passing these polluters; the second was to either remove the polluters from the road or force them into compliance. Once a station was identified as having passed a vehicle that shouldn't have passed I'd pore through that stations records for tests that seemed fishy. If I had enough "evidence" I might investigate further - surveillance, undercover cars, etc.

For the vehicles that would not pass or were illegally modified I had an arrangement with D.M.V. so that they would place a "stop" on their registration renewal. They only way to have the stop removed was to take the vehicle to the state's smog referee. Needless to say not many vehicles made it to the referee.

So back to the topic, are we doing enough to curb air pollution? The answer really is no we are not. I can't and won't blame the B.A.R., California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), or Air Resources Board (ARB) completely. They don't write the laws (although CalEPA and ARB have been accused of just that). None of these agencies exempted vehicles from testing. No the legislature did that. Here's the exemptions as per the DMV's web site:

Currently, smog inspections are required for all vehicles except diesel powered vehicles 1997 year model and older or with a Gross Vehicle Weight (GVWR) of more than 14,000 lbs, electric, natural gas powered vehicles over 14,000 lbs, motorcycles, trailers, or gasoline powered vehicles 1975 and older.
Vehicles registered in areas subject to the biennial smog certification program are required to submit evidence of a smog certification every other renewal period. Owners of vehicles six or less model years old will pay an annual smog abatement fee for the first six registration years instead of being required to provide a biennial smog certification. The registration renewal notice mailed to you by the department will indicate if a smog certification is required. If a smog certification is required and you have not had a smog inspection, you may still pay your registration fees to avoid any late fees. However, you will not receive your new registration or year sticker until the smog information has been received by DMV.
NOTE: Upon initial registration, nonresident;
  • Diesel powered vehicles 1998 model year and newer with a (GVWR) rating of no more than 14,000 lbs, and specially constructed vehicles 1976 and newer require smog certification. The six or less model years old rule does not apply to these vehicles.
When you transfer a vehicle that is four or less model years old a smog certification is not required. (Determine the oldest-qualifying year model by subtracting three from the current year.) The four or less model years old rule does not apply to diesel powered vehicles. A smog transfer fee will be collected from the new owner . When a vehicle is more than four model years old, a seller must provide evidence of a current smog certification except when one of the following occurs:
  • The transfer occurs between a spouse, domestic partner, sibling, child, parent, grandparent, or grandchild.
  • A biennial smog certification was submitted to DMV within 90 days prior to the vehicle transfer date (a vehicle inspection report may be required for proof of certification).
Over two million new vehicles are sold every year in California. That times six years equals 12 million vehicles that may be exempt. I could find no statistic of how many cars 1975 and older are registered in California but we know that California cars last much longer than those east of the Mississippi. In a SacBee article it was stated that of all vehicles registered in California roughly half were more than ten years old. There are over 38-million vehicles registered in California. 

A study done by a member of the IMRC showed that vehicles '75 and older polluted at a level grossly higher than any vehicle newer and subject to a smog inspection (it also showed that old pickup trucks were the worst). So even if only 1% of the vehicles on our roads is '75 and older there is an exponential increase in pollution. 

We, or the politicians who have passed these exemptions, are complicit in the terrible air pollution in SoCal this year and for many years. It is time for our state legislators to stand up and say "Enough". 


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