SACRAMENTO — Many Californians who are forced to have their cars checked for smog emissions aren't getting the full inspection they pay for, an undercover audit has found.
Posing as motorists who needed smog checks, state auditors monitored 350 mostly Southern California stations for three months to determine if they were correctly performing the state's complicated new emissions tests.
In 50% of the inspections conducted at test and repair stations, key parts of the smog check were omitted. At test-only stations, the results were slightly better, with incomplete inspections 27% of the time. At gold shield stations, which are test and repair facilities that must meet higher standards than other sites, incomplete tests were performed 31% of the time.
In many cases, cars were allowed to pass the test although emitting unburned gasoline, a major source of pollution.
In California, smog checks are performed by a variety of stations but most motorists take their cars to mom-and-pop automotive shops that can test and then make any necessary repairs.
"Of course, these results are unacceptable," said K. Martin Keller, chief of the state's Bureau of Automotive Repair, which oversees the smog check program. "But this is what we deliberately set out to discover . . . what is working and what ain't working."
Keller ordered the audits to help gauge the effectiveness of Smog Check II, a program designed for parts of the state that cannot meet established air quality standards--primarily Los Angeles and Orange counties and portions of San Diego, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Sacramento counties.
In those areas, cars are tested for emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen--all components of the ugly brown haze that often blankets Southern California. The tests in highly polluted areas are conducted on a treadmill-like device called a dynamometer, which simulates actual driving conditions.
To test the testers, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the bureau, auditors in September, October and November used undercover cars of different years, makes and models. Each car was given at least two defects, such as a missing catalytic converter or a nonfunctioning ignition timing system, that would cause it to fail the test.
"We put a car in perfect running order and then make two things go wrong," he said.
In almost all cases when stations did not test the undercover cars correctly, Keller said, the problem was human error, not faulty technical equipment. He said some inspectors took shortcuts by skipping a visual examination of different parts of the car that would have told them if certain emissions equipment was missing or not functioning.
He attributed the mistakes to two factors: impatience with a new, time-consuming testing system and fears that customers will take their business elsewhere if their cars fail.
"There is an enormous fear in the industry of losing customers because you failed them on a smog test," Keller said.
Although the audit results are disappointing, Keller said, they are an improvement over an earlier audit of 191 stations. That one found incomplete inspections at test and repair stations 61% of the time and at test-only stations 48% of the time.
He credited the improvement to a series of workshops conducted by the bureau to help smog check technicians better their skills.
No penalties were imposed on inadequate testers, Keller said, but stations will be informed of the audit results and notified that there will be future audits.
He predicted the testing will improve as stations become more familiar with the new smog program, which did not fully go into effect until September.
Despite the poor showing, representatives of the auto repair industry characterized the audits as instructive. "We support the audits," said Christopher Walker, a Sacramento lobbyist for the California Service Station and Automotive Repair Assn. "It's an effort to provide continuous improvement of the program."
Between May and November, the smog test failure rate in heavily polluted areas of the state doubled, jumping from 7.4% to 14%. Cars manufactured since 1993 are not subject to smog check.
The vehicles that have failed smog tests most often have been cars manufactured between 1975 and 1983 and 1987 and 1992, and light trucks manufactured between 1979 and 1983.
Douglas Lawson, an air pollution research scientist who is familiar with California's program, said the new failure rate is one of the highest in the nation. But he too predicted it will soon drop back to earlier levels, as drivers learn how to work around the system.
"After a little while," he said, "human beings always figure out how to avoid the tests."