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Clunkers, Classics and Smog

September 17, 2004

There's no reason a car that's been passing smog checks all along shouldn't continue to do so, with proper maintenance and repair. Yet legislation passed seven years ago at the behest of car collectors exempted automobiles from the state's smog program when they turned 30. With cars lasting longer, that has meant increasing numbers of old clunkers each year, putting out a hugely disproportionate share of pollution. This was never a good idea, and it's time for it to end.

It's not as though a bill by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) would force the owners of classic cars to overhaul their engines to meet smog standards they never were meant to pass. It would simply make cars manufactured after 1975 continue to operate as cleanly as they were designed to -- and already do.

The objections of classic car owners are hollow and sometimes self-defeating:

* Many owners of older cars want to modify their engines in ways that would flunk the smog test. Yes, exactly.

* Many car collectors drive their automobiles rarely. All the more reason that those vehicles should be able to pass a smog test; their engines and parts aren't being worn down.

* Older cars are often owned by poor people who can't afford extensive repairs. State funds have been set aside to help these people bring their cars up to snuff. The smog program exempts automotive parts that are too hard to find.

* Diesel engines cause far more pollution than old cars, which make up a relatively small percentage of vehicles on the road. True. That's why the state and federal governments have several initiatives in the works to clean up diesel engines. It's not a reason to add pollution from existing cars. The number of cars manufactured before 1976 can only decrease with time; the number of cars 30 and older will increase.

* This bill is just a start. Next they'll go after all the old classics. The current bill permanently exempts those cars. Of course, it's reasonable not to trust a promise from Sacramento. But it's not reasonable to object to a good bill because it might be followed by a bad one. Should such silly legislation be proposed, this editorial page will be lining up with the car owners.

Comedian Jay Leno, an avid car collector who was among those who sought the exemption for 30-year-old cars, has made his objections to AB 2683 vociferously clear. Some supporters of the bill fear that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will want to appease the entertainer whose talk show jump-started his gubernatorial campaign. But the governor also has been a champion of clean-air proposals. He should sign this bill, knowing that smog is no joke.

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