CHP Officer Ronald W. Perkins sat patiently in his patrol car on the shoulder of the Garden Grove Freeway in Santa Ana.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of wait and see," he said.
Finally, a large diesel truck rolled by, spewing black smoke from its tall exhaust pipe.
"There's one," he said, accelerating onto the roadway.
Perkins is one of eight California Highway Patrol officers in Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties who have been spending most of their time since last summer on the trail of smoking vehicles. They issue about 800 to 900 citations for illegal emissions each month, but they say their real mission is education.
They are part of the Vehicle Pollution Control Program started by the South Coast Air Quality Management District last April with initial funding of $75,000. During a 3-month trial period, three CHP officers issued nearly 1,000 citations.
The air quality district then budgeted $725,000 for a total of eight officers for one year, beginning last July. Two of the officers are based in Orange County, four in Los Angeles County and two in the San Bernardino-Riverside area, but they often cross county lines while on patrol.
A similar enforcement program, launched in 1955 by the Los Angeles County Air Pollu
tion Control District, was discontinued in 1975 when the district decided to focus on pollution caused by industry.
Today's smog cops must earn state certification from the state Air Resources Board, establishing their ability to recognize illegal emissions by looking at the color of exhaust and comparing it to a standardized chart. Black smoke is an infraction under the California Vehicle Code.
The CHP officers who serve as smog cops won't be found in the familiar black-and-white patrol cars; instead, they drive all-white cars with CHP insignia and air quality district seals. Painted on the sides of these cruisers are the words, "Vehicle Pollution Control Program."
"They wanted (the cars) to look distinctive," Perkins said, "to let people know about us."
On one recent afternoon, in the company of a reporter, Perkins eased one of those cars onto the Riverside Freeway, joining a fleet of commuters that immediately slowed its collective speed.
"Now everybody's got to get honest," he said, as cars slowed around him.
A Smoking Rig
Eventually, Perkins found what he was looking for and pulled in behind a large, smoking rig. After watching a steady, 10-second stream of exhaust (smoke spewed during acceleration or gear shifting is considered normal and legal), Perkins turned on his red light to stop the truck.
Michael Petitt of Bellflower pulled his rig over.
When Perkins told him why he had been stopped, Petitt was relieved. At least it wasn't speeding.
He pointed to the brown haze in the distance and acknowledged, "Someone has got to do something about this."
He was driving a company truck that was considered the worst mechanically, Petitt said. "Maybe they'll fix it now."
Most of the drivers cited by Perkins on that day were in trucks. Although passenger cars, buses, motorcycles and other vehicles are also cited, 80% of the violators are diesel trucks, according to air quality district statistics.
"No problem," said Donald Hall, a driver for Pipeline Trucking Co. of Fontana, when he was cited. "The company's got to take care of it."
The registered owners of the vehicles cited are responsible for the violations. If the CHP is shown proof that the problem has been fixed, usually through a receipt for work or parts, the ticket is dismissed.
More Serious Consequences
A citation that is not dismissed may result in a fine of up to $75, an Orange County Municipal Court spokesman said. Unresolved multiple citations could result in denial of vehicle registration.
Though fines are rare, tuning an engine to comply with state emission standards costs money.
Independent trucker Lawrence Genyard was angry about receiving a citation for excessive smoke. Even after adjustments, he said, the smoke eventually will return.
"I'll spend $300 to try to clear up the smoke," he said, "and 3 months from now, I'll be right back where I am."
CHP Sgt. George Johnson, supervisor of the smog patrol, agreed that the cost of fixing a smoking vehicle may be a burden to some.
"For them to take the truck off the road and do the necessary work is a cost to them, but the law is clear in terms of visual emission," he said.
"If you operate a motor vehicle, it's incumbent upon you to maintain that vehicle," Johnson said. "Certainly you wouldn't want to drive a car with bad brakes, so you wouldn't operate a vehicle with a smoking engine." Standards for both are specified by law.
Dark exhaust fumes contain a high level of particulate matter, unburned fuel that contributes to smog's ugly brown haze, according to air quality district spokesman Bill Kelly. Particulate matter also aggravates respiratory problems.