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My Pratfall at Environmental Purity Theater

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As I recently sat in a seemingly endless line of cars at the Maryland vehicle emissions checkpoint, the engine in my 1999 Ford suddenly growled, shuttered, and conked out cold.   Maybe this was karma for my decades of scoffing at harebrained government regulations?

As I waited 90 minutes for a tow truck (thanks, GEICO!), I watched a stream of vehicles tarry up to half an hour to proceed through the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program (VEIP) gauntlet. This test is touted as a golden shield for air quality, but the Maryland Department of Environment was unable to provide any data on its benefits after I sent them an inquiry.

Drivers in 31 states must comply with similar tests thanks to the Clean Air Act. States that displease the EPA, which dictates the compliance regulations, risk losing federal highway funds.   The tests have been in the news lately thanks to Volkswagen’s software switcheroo that sent misleading signals when its diesel engines took government emission tests. But regardless of Volkswagen’s perfidy, do the tests, which began before revolutions in auto engine designs, make any sense?

An EPA air compliance inspector in Alaska admitted in 2012, “You’re just not finding a lot of dirty cars any more.” A Colorado government audit recently concluded that the “public need” for its emission testing regime was “uncertain” and recommended exempting all vehicles from model year 2001 onwards. (Maryland exempts only the two most recent model years.)

Improved technology by auto manufacturers has probably done a hundred times more to reduce environmental harm than government emission tests. According to University of Denver research engineer Gary Bishop, emission inspections “costs lots of money” but “does absolutely nothing to clean up the air.” Bishop, who has pioneered new methods of roadside sensor tests, found that auto emissions in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has no emission testing, were no worse than in locales with strict testing regimes.

I have been jaded on these tests since 2008 when a VEIP employee briefly hooked up a gizmo to my car dashboard and then announced that my Contour failed. I had four months to get it fixed or I would be banned from driving it – unless I spent at least $450 on repairs. My mechanic examined the car and was mystified because the engine and everything else was running smooth and clean. Then he suggested that the Check Engine light was the reason it failed. He made no repairs, but when I got re-tested, the attendant hooked up an apparatus to the tail pipe to measure actual emissions. My car passed with flying colors.

Maryland, like many other states, has a massive, mandatory emission testing regime that relies on the Onboard Diagnostic (OBD) system in car dashboards. Regulators presume an illuminated Check Engine light proves that there is an emission violation. But there are plenty of reasons why the check engine light would go on aside from excessive emissions – such as a loose wire, a faulty sensor, a computer glitch, or sheer cussedness. When Ontario switched in 2013 from measuring tailpipe emissions to checking OBD readings, the percentage of vehicles that failed the tests soared by 60%.

VEIP is my biannual regulatory dodge ball game. When I received my VEIP summons in April, my Check Engine light was on – as it has been for much of the past decade. I delayed getting tested, hoping the light would switch off – as it does periodically. Then Maryland warned that it would cancel my vehicle registration unless I got VEIPed within 30 days. I took my car onto the interstate and drove it harder, faster, and further than usual to get the Check Engine light to switch off. It worked – at least until my fuel pump gave up the ghost in the testing line. After spending $837 for a new fuel pump and a $29 inspection fee (including a $15 late charge), my Ford received another two-year reprieve from bureaucratic damnation.

Some folks who heard of my experience tutted that it proves that I should buy a newer car. But I usually drive less than 5000 miles a year; I work at home, live near a subway stop, and enjoy biking more than driving. For long road trips, I rent cars. Some people may presume that manufacturing new cars is environmentally neutral as long as the Check Engine light does not go on. But unnecessarily squandering resources and money is a nitwit response to bogus dashboard alerts.

Besides, federal, state, and local policies cause more air pollution than VEIP deters. Driving to the VEIP site, I had ample opportunity to cuss the pointless delays on the county’s main six-lane business corridor. Red lights are one of the biggest sources of air pollution around. But Montgomery County is raking in $4 million a year in fines from red light cameras, a strong deterrent to synchronizing the lights.

Maryland drivers are compelled to rely on fuel with 10% ethanol. Maryland has some of the worst smog problems in the nation and ethanol is notorious for increasing smog – especially in the summer. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimated that adding ethanol to gasoline does twice as much harm to air quality as auto emission testing prevents.

Anyone who scorns a VEIP summons runs into another government buzzsaw. Maryland leads the nation in surveillance of its citizens – or at least its drivers.   Under former governor Martin O’Malley, the state snared federal Homeland Security grants to equip hundreds of police cars with license plate scanners that create almost 100 million records per year detailing exactly where and when each vehicle travels. The massive databank, which mortifies the ACLU, has been almost a total failure at nailing violent criminals or car thieves or terrorists. Instead, almost all the license plate alerts involve VEIP scofflaws. Maryland police have a tawdry record of illegal surveillance on antiwar protestors.

Unfortunately, Maryland’s license plate scanners are unable to detect regulatory boondoggles. Will EPA or the state’s politicians admit the futility of emission testing before my old Ford receives another VEIP summons in 2018? Regardless of how much pollution government policies cause, bureaucrats are still entitled to unlimited power over drivers who might – or might not – inflict environmental harm.

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James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books. Bovard is on the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is on Twitter at @jimbovard. His website is at www.jimbovard.com  This essay was originally published by Future of Freedom Foundation.

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