Drive Clean changes coming

By Meredith Macleod, The Hamilton Spectator

(Sep 12, 2005)

An independent review of Drive Clean is recommending a major overhaul of the mandatory emissions-testing program.

The changes would ease up on drivers with newer cars and crack down on those driving older or dirty vehicles. There'd also be new measures to combat fraud.The province ordered the review after an investigation by The Hamilton Spectator last year revealed sky-high pass rates for newer cars, showed widespread fraud, and found polluting cars going back on the road with few or no repairs. The Spectator won a National Newspaper Award for its investigative reporting. The draft final report dated July 11, 2005, was prepared by Eastern Research Group of Austin, Texas. It has not been made public, but The Spectator obtained a copy. Among the recommendations, the province is being urged to:

*Allow drivers two more years before they have to start testing new cars, while ending the exemption for some of the oldest, most polluting vehicles.

*Clamp down on so-called conditional passes that allow failing cars to go back on the road with some or no repairs.

*Subsidize the repair costs for low-income people driving old polluting cars, or pay them to take the junkers off the road.

*Test 1998 and newer cars by attaching an analyzer to the vehicles' on-board diagnostic systems, as well as with the current tailpipe gas test.

*Require the more than 200,000 cars, light-duty trucks, vans and SUVs that fail each year to undergo a follow-up test a year later, to ensure "durable repairs" have been made.

*Eliminate paper Drive Clean testing certificates as a way of combatting fraud. The report found nearly half of vehicles that failed an initial Drive Clean test in 2003, and didn't subsequently pass a retest, were put back on the road with a certificate generated for a different vehicle.

*Expand the list of "triggers" used to decide which garages should be investigated for fraud. For example, the consultants suggest auditing garages with higher-than-expected pass rates, given the mix of vehicles tested there.

*Establish a repair effectiveness index that would measure whether a garage makes effective and durable repairs, based on vehicles that are retested. The information should be posted on the Drive Clean website, perhaps with a star rating.

*Explore the use of new technologies, including road-side ultraviolet and infrared light sensors to spot heavy polluters.A provincial spokesperson said the Drive Clean Office is studying the findings and developing its own recommendations.

"It's important to note that the report says Drive Clean is working," said Charles Ross, the spokesperson for the program. "There are ways to make improvements and all the recommendations and findings are being fully considered."

The Ontario program has been criticized for repeatedly waiving some or all repairs on vehicles that fail. Consumers can get a conditional pass after paying a maximum of $450 for repairs. If a single repair would cost more than $450, cars can sometimes get a waiver without the owner paying a cent.The report suggests increasing the value of repairs required to get a conditional pass to $600, and limiting each vehicle to just one waiver. There is no limit on the number allowed now and noxious polluters have been allowed to keep running.

Currently, the $35 emissions test is mandatory every other year for any passenger vehicle between three and 20 years old or any vehicle between one and 20 years being resold.The consultants concluded that four and five year old cars account for about 22 per cent of all vehicles on the road -- 525,000 -- but make up a tiny part of potential emissions reductions. They suggest owners be allowed two more years before testing begins. Right now, testing begins at three model years old.The consultants also suggest scrapping the current policy that exempts cars 20 or more years old.

They recommend that all cars after the 1980 model year be subject to tests and that the date be fixed."Although there are relatively few numbers of these vehicles and they are not driven as many kilometres, they represent the greatest emission reduction potential per vehicle tested" the report says.The independent study examined the test results for all vehicles since the program began in 1999 to the end of 2004. It also reviewed in-house audits of the program and compared Ontario's approach to those in California, British Columbia, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Arizona and Colorado. Ross said the study is "a very important document" in the province's examination of Drive Clean. "Once everything is evaluated, we'll be coming forward with recommendations. I wouldn't think that will be too far off."

The Spectator investigation found Ontario residents have spent well over $1 billion on testing fees and emissions repairs but only a tiny minority of newer vehicles fail. For instance, in 2003, almost 98 per cent of passenger vehicles seven-years-old and newer -- more than half the vehicles on the road -- passed on their first try. Even 80 per cent of cars 11 years and newer passed, giving an overall pass rate of 93 per cent.Some states have scrapped emissions testing entirely, saying the costs outweigh the benefits, especially since today's vehicles produce less pollution.Hamilton cabinet minister Marie Bountrogianni said she was unaware of the Drive Clean study but said the program must "balance what is fair to the consumer with what is healthy for our kids and seniors." ERG concluded that Drive Clean is reducing smog-causing pollutants at a comparable cost to other jurisdictions with similar testing programs. The report also praised the province's efforts to root out cheaters, saying: "A system of compliance of this magnitude is not common among other jurisdictions."

Under Drive Clean, vehicles covered by the program are required to pass emissions tests in order to stay on the road.

Thanks to the Hamilton Spectator

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