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Smog Check II: Necessary, but in Need of a Tuneup

State should respond to its flaws and angry reception

September 29, 1996

A protest rally that drew 3,000 people to the state capitol last month had a decidedly California flavor: It was about cars. Many in the angry crowd, carrying such signs as "First you came for our guns, now you come for our cars!" and "Kiss My Gas," feared that the object of their disaffection, Smog Check II, would give state officials the authority to seize polluting vehicles. They urged lawmakers to suspend the new inspection regime.

In fact, seizures are not permitted under the program. But unless the Legislature acts swiftly and deliberately to nail down unresolved and troubling aspects as the operation gets underway, the statehouse protest will not be the last word of popular disapproval.

The Legislature devised Smog Check II in 1994 to meet the requirements of the revised federal Clean Air Act of 1992. It should improve the state's ability to identify the worst vehicular polluters and, by requiring owners to repair them, make sufficient strides to comply with federal smog law. The state's failure to meet those requirements would jeopardize billions of dollars in federal highway funds and other aid.

In this time of anxiety, it is important to remember that the alternatives to this stepped-up inspection and maintenance program were far worse than Smog Check II. Federal officials originally contemplated requiring motorists to line up at a limited number of central test stations for smog tests. That would have been a nightmare. Gov. Pete Wilson put his weight behind Smog Check II, which permits motorists to have their cars tested at neighborhood gas stations and garages--the practice of the original system, which began in 1984. Smog Check II is a key part of the state's plan to meet federal clean air requirements, a plan on which the Clinton administration signed off just last week.

Emissions standards under Smog Check II are unchanged from those that prevailed under the original program. But the new program aims to more accurately identify which cars meet those standards and which don't. Californians will generally have to assume more responsibility for repairing polluting cars. The original program capped the repair cost to motorists at $50 to $300, depending on the car's model year. Smog Check II could require motorists to spend up to $450 and more if their car is labeled a "gross polluter," meaning it emits twice the allowable pollutants.

These more extensive repairs are expected to produce cleaner air, but motorists who find that their cars are out of compliance are already voicing legitimate complaints about the cost and time involved in fixing them. The Legislature should address these complaints or expect far broader protests.

Too many loose ends remain from the 1994 legislation that produced Smog Check II. First, the understanding of which cars pollute under what conditions is still far from conclusive; more research is needed. No less important, the Legislature must adequately address in upcoming hearings the concerns of Californians who do not have the means to fix their cars and yet cannot get to work without them. A provision in the 1994 law to allot state funds to either repair or purchase and junk the oldest and most polluting cars is not the only answer, but it is a start and should be implemented. Pilot programs designed to improve the efficiency and control the costs of Smog Check II for all motorists should also get underway.

The state has an obligation to make sure that anger, frustration and noncompliance are not the major results of Smog Check II.

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