New Smog Law in California

Under a new program being made public slowly across the state, the way drivers get smog tests for their cars or trucks will depend largely on where they live. The amount and types of pollutants cars are allowed to spew will change. Getting waivers for problem cars will be more costly — and more difficult.

Smog certificates will be sent by computer from smog check stations straight to the Department of Motor Vehicles. And in another high-tech twist, mobile smog sensors on the roadside will test cars as they roll by and immediately report them to the state.

The program, dubbed “Smog Check II,” is state officials’ answer to changes mandated by the 1990 federal Clean Air Act. The new laws are appearing in bits and pieces — some parts of the program require expensive new smog check stations and equipment — but should be fully in place by 1998.

The aim is to clear California’s notoriously hazy air, especially in smog-choked areas such as Sacramento and Los Angeles. The number of cars failing smog tests, about 18 percent of all vehicles tested in 1994-95, is expected to go up because of more sensitive testing equipment.

The big target is the smog- belching cars the state deems “gross polluters.” About 10 to 15 percent of cars and trucks cause about half the state’s smog problem. The state wants those off the road, so much so that officials may start offering to buy cars that cannot pass a smog test.

“This program is serious about getting high-polluting vehicles repaired,” said Maria Chacon Kniestedt, spokeswoman for Smog Check II. “Cars that used to be out on the road year after year causing big pollution problems will not be able to do that anymore.”

The new smog laws are nothing if not complicated. Some of the new laws are in effect, while others are just around the corner:

— As of last month, all California smog certificates are issued electronically. Cars and trucks to be tested are first identified by the DMV computer, and if the vehicle passes, the results are sent straight to the DMV. The procedure has required garages that conduct smog checks to spend about $2,500 to update each smog machine and adds about 10 minutes to the length of the test.

— Smog tests will vary widely by area. Drivers in many rural regions and most parts of the Bay Area, where air pollution is less severe, will still have their cars tested at any garage offering the service. The test still measures tailpipe gases while the car is standing still, although some emission limits have changed for some cars. The new test also checks for oxides of nitrogen, a pollutant the state has never screened for before.

In very smoggy areas, such as Vacaville, Fresno and San Diego, 15 percent of vehicles will have to be checked at special new “test-only” smog centers. And all cars, whether checked at a garage or a test-only center, will have to be tested on a treadmill-like machine called a dynamometer. Sacramento already has the new system, and the rest of the Central Valley is next, scheduled for next spring.

— Waivers for problem cars will be much harder to get, and drivers will have to go to special test or referee centers to get them. Owners will have to spend a minimum of $450 to bring their cars into compliance before applying for a waiver, and waivers will be issued only once every four years. Drivers who cannot afford the repair bill can apply for a one-time, one-year extension.

SLOW CHANGES, BIG REACTIONS

The changes are being phased in gradually, but they already have some drivers up in arms.

Owners of older cars worry that the new tests are too restrictive for classic roadsters, and they are especially concerned about a new part of the smog test that requires revving the engines of cars manufactured before 1981 to test emissions. State officials counter that the new laws are not part of any campaign to force someone’s classic Ford Mustang off the road.

Cars manufactured before 1966 do not have to have smog checks, and older cars that must be tested do not have to meet the same standards as newer vehicles. Many mechanics say good maintenance, not age, is the key to passing the test.

Still, similar programs in other states have sparked grassroots campaigns to repeal the laws.

“I’m sorry to hear California will have something like this,” said Greg Bell, spokesman for the Coalition to Repeal Ohio E-Check, a group fighting a similar program and picketing smog check stations in Ohio. “It is too restrictive, and it just doesn’t work.”

Even if California’s new program is only half in place, some drivers are already noticing — and sometimes fuming about — parts of Smog Check II already in effect.

At Stauder Chevron in Oakland, a garage that does about 10 to 15 smog checks a day, co-owner Mike Stauder has already seen some irate customers.

“People who fail the test by a big margin can have their car fixed here, but then they have to go get retested at the referee center, and there can be a big backlog,” Stauder said. “Some customers are not too happy about it.”

Just trying to get in touch with the referee centers indicated that customers may indeed have to wait for tests — 15 phone calls over three days yielded only a busy signal each time.

At San Francisco Auto Repair Center, owner Jerry Lewis said the new laws have just about everyone confused. “I get calls from customers wondering about the law. I get calls from other garages,” he said. “To many people, the rules seem very vague right now.”

In the middle of all the crossed signals, however, the drivers who seem the most unhappy are those who don’t want to spend the money to fix their smoky road machines, Lewis said.

“We get a certain number of people who are very upset,” said Lewis. “I tell them to go live in L.A. and see what it’s like.”

Some watching the new tests in action say most drivers have nothing to worry about. At the California State Automobile Association office in Sacramento, senior auto service specialist Bob Kelleher has been checking with garages that administer the new tests.

MOSTLY POSITIVE BUZZ

“There are customers who don’t like it, but overall what I’ve heard has been pretty positive,” said Kelleher. “About 90 percent of the vehicles that failed the test the first time passed it after being repaired.”

The way to pass the new smog check, state officials and mechanics say, is to keep your car well- maintained. Tampering with any part of a vehicle’s emission system is asking for trouble, because such changes will mean a trip to a special test or referee center when smog check time rolls around.

“We get people who come in here who drive around with their engines two to three quarts low on oil,” said Mike Stauder at Stauder Chevron. “Cars are just not kept up like they used to be.”

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NEW SMOG RULES FOR CALIFORNIA

Under California’s complicated new Smog Check II program. how your car or truck will be testred depends a lot on where you live. Parts of the state with the dirtiest air — mostly the Sacramento, Central Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego areas — will face the toughest tests on new equipment. For other parts of the state, including most of the Bay Area, there are also strict new rules and standards.

HOW REMOTE SMOG SENSING WORKS

Remote smog sensors are appearing along California roadsides to measure emissions from cars as they drive by. The entire process takes about three seconds.

(1) An infrared beam shot across the highway picks up the contents of a car’s exhaust. A calibrator and computer on the other side of the road screen and measure the emissions.

(2) At the same time, a camera snaps a pictire of the vehicle’s license plate. The state uses that in information to find and notify the vehicle’s owner if emissions are too high.

SMOG TESTS DEPENDS ON WHERE YOU LIVE

HOW OFTEN VEHICLES ARE TESTED

Toughest testing (a) Once every two years, unless vehicle is a high polluter, and when vehicle change owners.

Less strict Once every two years, unless vehicle is a high polluter, and when vehicle changes owners.

Least strict Only when vehicle changes owners.

HOW VEHICLE IS TESTED

Toughest testing (a) 15 percent of all vehicles tested at new smog centers, others tested at private garages. All tested on treadmills. Test results sent by computer to DMV.

Less strict All tested at private garages, no treadmill. Test result sent by computer to DMV.

Least strict All tested at private garages, no treadmill. Test results sent by computer to DMV.

IF VEHICLE FAILS

Toughest testing (a) High polluters must be repaired and retested at new smog centers. Less severe polluters must be repaired and retested at either private garages or smog centers.

Less strict High polluters must be repaired and retested at special referee centers. Less severe polluters must be repaired and retested at private garages.

Least strict Allvehicles must be repaired and retested at private garages.

REPAIR COST WAIVERS (b)

Toughest testing (a) Vehicle owner must spend at least $450 on smog-relatred repairs before getting a waiver if vehicle fails test.

Less strict Vehicle owner must spend at least $450 on smog-related repairs before getting a waiver if vehicle fails test.

Least strict N/A

Toughest testing (a) If you cannot afford needed smog repairs, you may apply for a one-time, one-year extension.

Less strict If you cannot afford needed smog repairs, you may apply for a one-time, one-year extension.

Least strict N/A

(a) The new program for more polluted areas will only take effect as Smog Check II becomes fully operational in those areas. Currently, Sacramento is the only area where the program is completely in place. The Central Valley will follow next spring. (b) Waivers are not avaiable for vehicles that are changing ownership or are being registered in California for the first time.

PAGE ONE — Stricter Smog Rules For Cars
State Zeroes in on Most-Polluted Areas

April Lynch, Chronicle Staff Writer

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