Debate on auto emissions, now idling, will shift into gear this autumn

Whether you will be required to have your car checked each year for exhaust emissions depends on the outcome of what promises to be a lively debate in Congress in the months ahead.

Under a provision of the Clean Air Act, every state must have an emissions inspection program within the next 18 months. A driver whose car fails must have the car tuned up or, in some cases, have more substantial repairs made to meet the federal emissions standards.

But President Reagan and the auto industry want those standards relaxed. And the American Automobile Association (AAA), representing some 22 million drivers, does not want a federally mandated emissions inspection program. States should be allowed to devise their own programs, says an AAA spokesman.

Officials in New Jersey, which has had a state-mandated emissions inspection program since 1974, say it has brought down the level of carbon monoxide in the air by 7 percent more than in urban areas in neighboring states without such a program. But officials in Illinois, which has no such program, say control of other pollution sources is cleaning up the air and that an emissions inspection program is a "hassle" for drivers and an unnecessary cost to the state.

As it stands now, some 43 metropolitan areas are required to begin an annual, mandatory emissions inspection using private garages by January 1982 or using state-run garages by January 1983. Some 50 other big cities, including Dallas, New Orleans, and Miami have been excused from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirement for meeting federal air-quality standards.

The inspection programs will be state funded. States required to have the program but failing to implement it face possible federal highway and water-treatment fund cutoffs. Kentucky and California already face such cutoffs and have challenged the program in court. Many states have reluctantly passed laws to begin the program to avoid such funding cutoffs, according to the AAA.

Federal standards already have forced auto manufacturers to produce cleaner-burning cars. But nearly one out of two cars fails to meet those standards after a year of driving, usually due to lack of proper tuneups, says Donald White, EPA manager of the emissions inspection program.

New Jersey officials say drivers failing the emissions tests usually pay about $20 for a tuneup to pass, but the car also uses less gas when tuned up.

AAA spokesman W. Allan Wilbur says Congress should rewrite the law to allow states to choose their own way of inspecting emissions, including random inspections and inspections at the time of ownership change.

Earliers this month, President Reagan endorsed a list of proposed changes generally relaxing air-quality standards but did not mention the mandatory emissions inspection program. Supporters of the current Clean Air Act were quick to register their disapproval of Mr. Reagan's proposals.

If the mandatory emissions program survives the reauthorization of the act, which expires this fall, its requirements may be changed. But a recent House vote against the program was narrowly defeated and a Senate amendment to defeat it was withdrawn for apparent lack of support.

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