Mandatory emission tests for vehicles in certain counties, including Snohomish, are being phased out. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Mandatory emission tests for vehicles in certain counties, including Snohomish, are being phased out. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Vehicle emissions testing is going by the wayside

For now, though, if your car gets the notice that it’s due for a test, you still have to go in.

The Chrysler Town & Country is a 2005 model, which meant Lee Woodard was off to the emission testing station if he wanted his tabs renewed.

“It passed just fine but it is such an intimidating ordeal,” the Everett man recalled. “You feel (or at least me) like you are in school waiting for your report card to see if you passed.”

Then, like a teacher dangling a pop quiz paper, as if to throw it in the trash instead … “I was told by the test person that the program will be ending at the end of 2019,” Woodard said.

His reaction was one I think we all share: “Could this wonderful news be true?”

Yes.

“It makes sense now that air quality has improved to wind the program down and focus on other ways to improve air quality,” said Andrew Wineke, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology’s air quality program. “Let’s save people 15 bucks and the aggravation and wind this down.”

A shrinking pool of cars is still tested — last year, 12 percent of all licensed vehicles.

And, yes, if your car gets the notice that it’s due for a test, you have to go in. (The test is $15. The ticket for expired tabs tops $200.)

One reason there hasn’t been much public outreach about the impending shutdown is that it’s still more than a year away.

“It’s a big deal to wind down a program, one that’s been around for 35 years,” Wineke said.

History lesson

New Jersey was the first to start a vehicle emissions testing program, in 1974, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At the time, vehicle emissions inspection was one of the optional measures for states under the 1970 Clean Air Act. The federal government later used the New Jersey program as a model.

Soon other states added their own programs, most in the early to mid-1980s. Our state’s emissions testing program started in 1982 with six sites in King and Snohomish counties.

The 1990 Clean Air Act then made the programs mandatory for urbanized areas that still weren’t meeting standards. More testing facilities were added in our region in 1993.

“Over time the pollutant picture has changed, so the emissions check program has evolved with it,” said Katie Skipper, a regional air quality unit manager.

Since 2002, technicians have instead plugged into a computer’s on-board diagnostics port to get a reading for most cars. The OBD-2 port became a national standard in cars starting with 1996 models.

In a sense, the emissions testing hasn’t really been testing emissions at all.

“The computers talking to each other actually do a better job,” Skipper said.

Given the ease of the newer method, the state’s vendor even tried to offer self-service kiosks for a time. But the attempt was mothballed in 2012.

At the height of our state’s testing program, in 2011, nearly 1.2 million vehicles were tested.

Testing programs have been slowly disappearing nationwide as newer, cleaner vehicles replace older, more emissions-prone vehicles.

Washington will join Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, Alaska and Kentucky, states that have already discontinued their programs.

Civics lesson

Just because emissions testing is going away doesn’t mean cars are incapable of belching out the bad stuff.

Heck, just because emissions testing is still here doesn’t mean cars don’t continue to belch out the bad stuff.

Of the 896,667 vehicles tested in 2017, for example, the number that failed on the first test was 104,783, about 12 percent. Of those, more than one-third received waivers on repairs to fix the problems because the costs would exceed $150 — meaning they simply went back on the road.

“Big picture, yes, air quality is expected to improve,” Skipper said. “But on an individual basis, we want people to feel responsible for what comes out of the tailpipe of their car.”

And that goes for Prius owners, too, she said. Proper maintenance is key for any vehicle.

But it’s also about attitude. Transportation-related emissions still account for nearly half of Washington’s air pollution.

What you can do: reduce your trips, buy low-mileage cars, keep the vehicle properly maintained — and cut down on idle time.

“If you’re sitting somewhere waiting for more than 30 seconds, whether it’s a parking lot or ferry lane, turn off the car,” she said.

“Happily those (pollutant) numbers are decreasing, and happily we don’t need this emissions program to continue that trend. But there is more we can do. And we’re hoping people still take their responsibility for what comes out of their tailpipe seriously,” Skipper said.

Duly noted.

Of course, I think many of us here at the back of the class are still focused on that giddy bit of news that started this whole column off.

And we share Woodard’s reaction: “I will certainly be glad to see it go. I say good riddance.”

Street Smarts: streetsmarts@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3432

Pop quiz

Now, class, you know whenever the teacher threatens a pop quiz it is going to happen …

Questions

1. True or False: Emissions testing checks for greenhouse gas emissions.

2. True or False: Emissions testing is a statewide requirement.

3. For 2019, name two of the model years scheduled for testing.

4. Name three of the vehicle types that never have to get emissions testing.

5. Name three things you can do to reduce pollution from your vehicle.

Answers

1. False, although transportation-related sources are the largest source of both air pollution and greenhouse gases in our state. In general, emissions tests check the levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

2. False: Emissions testing is required in three regions, covering most of Snohomish, King, Pierce, Clark and Spokane counties.

3. Vehicles with licenses expiring in 2019 generally must be checked if they are model year 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 or 2008.

4. Motorcycles. Gas vehicles from model years 2009 and newer. Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. Diesel vehicles from model years 2007 and newer. Diesel vehicles weighing 6,000 pounds or less. Vehicles more than 25 years old. Used vehicles sold by car dealers (title transfer). Read more in WAC 173-422A-060.

5. Drive less. Go easy on gas pedal and brakes. Maintain your car. Choose fuel-efficient vehicles. Don’t idle. Have packages shipped in one box and choose longer shipping windows. Use efficient lawn mowers and other gardening equipment. Read more from the EPA at tinyurl.com/CutEmissionsTips.

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