Hey Mr. Green,
I just waited in line at the DMV to get my car's emissions tested. It took about 20 minutes. Plus, the closest inspection site was 15 miles from my house. As we sat there idle and idling, I wondered whether it wouldn't be better for the air just to eliminate the emissions inspections. Now that most cars are relatively cleaner than they were back in the '70s, how many polluting cars do these inspections take off the road each year, compared to the impact of having every car in the state drive to an inspection station and sit idling for 20 minutes?
–Allen in Potomac, Maryland
First, I hope you weren’t idling while you were in the line, and that you are referring to the idling that was done while the car was being tested. As I’ve noted before, idling is a no-no.
I haven’t been able to determine the national total flunked clunkers taken off the road because of smog tests, but it’s clearly substantial. In California, for example, from 2000 to 2003, more than 20,000 vehicles that failed tests were officially retired in buyback programs. The actual number taken off the road had to have been far greater, because this figure only represents owners who actually bothered to go through the rather bureaucratic buyback process.
Yes, huge progress has been made in cutting air pollution from cars. Thanks to EPA rules, a big drop in deadly emissions occurred between 1970 and 1997, and they’re being further decreased by the implementation of new restrictions set during the Clinton administration. We can all breathe easier, literally, because the coalition of the greedy who wrecked our economy with deregulation schemes didn’t manage to kill our environmental rules—though some of their libertarian/free-market intellectual whores whipped up many specious arguments for doing precisely that.
But in wondering if the air is half-full or half-empty, keep in mind that the net reduction of auto pollution isn’t as great as may first appear. One reason, as I’ve noted before, is that we now have 115 million more cars and SUVs on the road than in 1970, and we drive them 2,400 miles farther each year, burning 40 billion more gallons of fuel in them. Therefore, many gains have been offset by the sheer increase in the number of vehicles. Yes, we succeeded in reducing dangerous small particles (soot, basically) by 75 percent, and we brought down some other nasty pollutants by more than 30 percent (though nitrogen oxide actually increased). The heftiest and certainly healthiest reduction of a serious poison came when the government flat-out banned lead additives from gasoline, which helped bring emissions from this brain-damaging heavy metal down from 220,000 tons to only 5,000 tons per year.
Finally, not only are there millions of clunkers still on the road that should be sent to recycling heaven, but even state-of-the-art pollution-control devices can and do fail, as can any technology. So all things considered, for the time being, I consider smog tests well worth the effort.