By Aarne Frobom
Sometime in 1995, drivers will begin encountering random police roadblocks. These will be like the checkpoints used to arrest drunk drivers, except that the car, not the driver, will be made to breathe into a machine.
California, the northeast, Houston, Denver, Washington State, and certain big cities will have to implement "enhanced" inspection-and-maintenance (I/M) programs. These are sophisticated smog tests using a computerized dynamometer. A little known requirement of these programs is that half a percent, or up to 20,000 cars in each urban area, will be subject to random tests each year. This will be after they have passed the regular biennial emissions test required before owners can renew their registration. EPA doesn't really trust its inspection-and-maintenance program to work, and the roadside tests are a sort of control or second line of enforcement.
The random tests may be at roadside checklanes, or they may be conducted by remote sensors as cars drive by. High-emitting cars could be detected by an infrared beam, their license plates photographed, and owners issued tickets if they live within the emissions-test area. Of the two designs, the remote system is preferable, and NMA commenters made this clear to the EPA during the rulemaking process. As obnoxious as the ticket-by-photo test is, there's no reason for non-polluting car owners to encounter local police roadblocks if they don't have to.
Drivers pulled over for random emissions tests are certain to be asked for more than their registration (which is all the EPA is legitimately interested in). The smog sniffers are certain to be accompanied by state police, who will want your driver's license, proof of insurance, and a look into your car and maybe your eyeballs. Random pull-overs shouldn't be permitted. Although the hardware is still being developed, the remote-sensor test is adequate for EPA's purpose, whatever that is.
What's this program for, anyway?
EPA has never stated the purpose of on-road testing, beyond "to evaluate the emission performance of 0.5% of the subject fleet" each year. But 20,000 cars are more than are needed statistically to sample the quality of the test-and-repair program.
On-road testing will also determine the number of unlicensed cars. As registration fees rise, more drivers respond by letting registration lapse, or by stealing license plates. Smog inspections will worsen the problem; EPA expects that at least two percent, and up to four percent, of drivers will evade the program by falsifying their addresses or stealing plates. Emissions from their cars have to be made up for by tighter controls on everyone else.
A third purpose might be to spread fear, to make drivers reluctant to evade the program or tamper with their cars after the test. As with drunk-driver roadblocks, the real purpose of the program might not be to detect a few violators, but to terrorize everyone else into compliance.
New car-inspection programs are being designed right now, and there is still time to influence the style of the program in your state. The "enhanced" test program isn't required everywhere, and random pull-overs are not required anywhere. NMA members should make it clear to their state legislators that they don't want to have their tailpipes probed by the side of the road.
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