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STREET SMART / RICHARD SIMON AND CARL INGRAM

Polluters Beware: Smog Sentries Will Soon Be Manning Their Posts

October 10, 1994|RICHARD SIMON and CARL INGRAM

Remember the smog cops? You know, those uniformed officers who patrolled Los Angeles freeways in black-and-whites armed with a Polaroid instead of a gun to shoot pictures of polluting vehicles.

The camera-toting officers are long gone, but authorities have a new weapon in their decades-old fight against the dirtiest vehicles on the road. They will soon begin installing a high-tech device that records the exhaust emissions and license plates of cars as they whiz by on roadways throughout the state.

RoboCop has arrived.

Owners of the worst-polluting vehicles will be sent a notice requiring immediate smog inspection, instead of allowing the usual two years between checks. Failure to appear will result in a fine of $5 for each day's delay, up to $500.

"A very small number of cars, maybe 10%, emit more than half of the pollutants from cars," said Bill Kelly of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The new smog-sniffing devices--one manufacturer calls its sensor "Smog Dog"--are the latest weapons in the war to clean the air of the nation's smoggiest region.

The uniformed smog cops--employed by Los Angeles County from 1955 through the late '70s--were eliminated shortly after passage of the tax-cutting Proposition 13.

More recently, the CHP deployed up to nine officers in Los Angeles County to ticket smoking vehicles. But that program was eliminated last year because of budget cuts. CHP officers still issue citations for smog violations, but only as part of their regular duties, and the number of tickets issued has dropped dramatically.

The AQMD also operates a snitch line for reporting polluting cars--1-800-CUT-SMOG, which logged 136,000 calls last year. The agency sends out a letter asking owners of offending vehicles to check their cars and warning that violators are subject to a $250 fine if caught. But less than half of those who receive warnings send back the voluntary responses advising that they have addressed the problems.

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But soon, barely noticeable sensors--boxes that sit alongside the roadway and shoot an infrared beam through a tailpipe's emissions--will begin showing up in a number of places.

The state agreed to use the sensors as part of a compromise with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which said California was not doing enough to meet clean air standards.

Officials are still working out details, such as how many devices will be placed on freeway ramps and which freeways will be outfitted. There are no plans to stop motorists on the spot. Rather, owners of vehicles repeatedly detected by the sensors as high polluters would be identified by computer and sent letters ordering them in for smog inspections.

Owners of the worst-polluting vehicles who have low incomes will be eligible for public subsidies of up to $450 to help pay for repairs; owners of gross polluters, regardless of income, will be eligible for up to $800 from the state if they junk their vehicle and buy a cleaner-burning one.

The state Bureau of Automotive Repair also has been using the sensors in Sacramento to help develop a profile of the worst-polluting vehicles by model and year. Once identified, the vehicles will become candidates for intensified inspections between their regularly scheduled examinations.

"Everybody agrees that the off-cycle random test is the missing link," said James Schoning, chief of the bureau, which operates the smog check program.

If the program works as proposed, 1.5 million, or 15% of the cars and light trucks in the regions with the dirtiest air, including Los Angeles, will undergo rigorous new inspections next year at test-only facilities. Other affected regions include the Inland Empire, Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties, Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento.

The remaining 85% of motorists will go to traditional test-and-repair garages as they have for the past decade.

Separately, the AQMD will soon begin testing the sensors on Orange County freeway ramps. Los Angeles recently placed sensors on city streets to determine whether their use would disproportionately affect certain economic classes. The results are still being compiled.

The air pollution district's tests are designed to help determine whether it should allow companies to use the sensors in lieu of establishing ride-sharing programs. Companies would station the sensors at entrances to employee parking lots and help pay for repairs to the worst-polluting vehicles or contribute toward the purchase of cleaner cars.

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Officials say the sensors could help solve an ironic problem: Some solo commuters may be driving cleaner cars than car-poolers.

A researcher hired by the AQMD to test the sensors said the worst-polluting cars on the freeway are emitting as much as half a pound of carbon monoxide per mile--or 100 times the legal limit. "If the car goes 1,000 miles per month, that's three tons per year," said Doug Lawson, a professor with the Desert Research Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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