Cars

With newer, cleaner cars on the road, is Washington’s vehicle emission test still necessary?

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Turns out, the state has been preparing to get rid of the emissions test for years. The law is set to expire at the end of 2019.

Air pollution: Bad. Cars that meet environmental standards: Good.

Tests to check that older vehicles in Washington’s most-populous areas comply with emission regulations: Mandatory.

But with a growing number of new and cleaner cars on the road that meet clean-air standards, are the inspections — which cost at least $15 per vehicle and pertain only to certain models — still necessary?

“I realize diesel trucks and leaded-gas vehicles pollute the air, but they are a small minority,” Gordon Knuth, of North Seattle, wrote to Traffic Lab, asking about the need for the tests. “I’m beginning to think the test is a moneymaker for the county.”

To answer, we contacted the state Department of Ecology and an emissions expert, dived into The Seattle Times archives and looked at programs elsewhere.

Turns out, as car technology has evolved and more vehicles use electricity or cleaner fuels to run, Washington officials have been preparing for the end of the emission-testing program — which is run by the state, not the counties.

The law requiring the test is set to expire Dec. 31, 2019.

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“A car’s computers can tell you everything, such as how tightly your gas cap is fitting, what your fuel efficiency is and even what your wheel speed is to control the brakes,” The Seattle Times reported in August 2011. “Now this new technology has an added bonus: It’s part of the reason behind the easing up and eventually phasing out of the” law.

The state began emissions tests in 1982, soon after the state Legislature established the system using standards in the federal Clean Air Act.

“Since that time, cars have gotten cleaner and cleaner,” said Camille St. Onge, of the Ecology department. Though lawmakers could establish another program after the law ends, she said, “that’s not anticipated.”

Now, federal standards regulating vehicle pollution keep emissions low.

Washington officials are hoping that remains true in 2020, after the law expires. The current federal administration, however, could loosen the requirements.

States across the country launched similar inspection programs to control air pollution in highly populated areas, to help comply with the Clean Air Act.

Some states, including Kentucky and Minnesota, have since ended their testing programs. Currently, 29 states, including Washington, have some type of emissions-testing program, St. Onge said.

Washington lawmakers over the years have updated the law’s requirements so that newer cars are exempt. That’s led to a general decline in the number of vehicles needing the tests.

Right now, fleet operators and owners of vehicles with certain manufacturing dates before 2009, except for some hybrids and new or low-weight diesels, need the inspections. (You can check to see if your vehicle must be tested at the Washington Vehicle Emission Check Program’s website.)

The law applies only to King, Pierce, Snohomish, Clark and Spokane counties.

Last year, crews tested about 900,000 vehicles — about 280,000 fewer than in 2013, according to the Ecology Department.

A contractor operates 16 facilities for the state to do the tests, in which crews use a computerized system to detect malfunctioning or modified equipment and determine emission levels. Those cost a standard $15 fee.

So, to get back to Gordon Knuth’s question, are those fees a steady source of government revenue?

Not really. Most of the fee goes to the contractor that runs the program. The state keeps $3.62 for each test to cover administration and oversight costs, St. Onge said.

Budget estimates show the program will generate about $5.2 million for the state in the 2015-17 two-year budget, she said. During that same time, the Department of Ecology will spend about $4.3 million to administer the testing program.

The state Department of Enterprise Services gets the rest of the money for its work overseeing the agreement between the state and the contractor, St. Onge said.

A select group of auto shops in Washington can do the same test, with approval from the state, though there’s no limit to what they charge. St. Onge said the costs range as high as $69.95 per test.

Drivers must show passing results when they renew their license tabs or register their vehicles. Or, if they fail multiple times, after spending at least $150 trying to fix the problem, they can get waivers for that test cycle.

Chris Frey, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University, said the inspections aim to identify both vehicle malfunctions and people who have tampered with emission-control systems.

“Anytime you have an emission control in the tailpipe, there’s an opportunity for it to fail,” said Frey, who specializes in fuel use and vehicle emissions.

Malfunctioning parts can raise emission levels 10 to 100 times higher than that of properly working vehicles, Frey said.

The failure rate for newer vehicles is very low, however, so there’s less of a benefit inspecting those compared to older models, he said.

Ultimately, Frey said, government programs to control emissions are about the adverse effects of pollution that take a toll on public health and the environment.

Research connects soot and smog to heart and lung diseases, with pollution killing more than 4 million people worldwide each year, Susan Anenberg, a researcher at Environmental Health Analytics and a former U.S. government scientist, told The Associated Press.

In Seattle, leaders have made commitments to cut greenhouse-gas pollution over the long term, especially from the city’s vehicle fleet.

Between 2010 and 2016, roughly 22,080 plug-in electric vehicles were registered in Washington, according to a June 2017 report by the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. About 22 percent were in Seattle.

For questions about Washington’s emission testing, contact the Department of Ecology at 800-272-3780.

Got a question for Traffic Lab?

Last week, we described why those electronic traffic signs above arterials sometimes show wrong information. The week before that, we explained how push-to-walk buttons at crosswalks work.

If you have a question or idea for us, send it to trafficlab@seattletimes.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.

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