California Smog Plan Drives Motorists to Protest

Car culture, environmental concerns collide as state cracks down on 'gross polluters'

Choked by some of the worst smog in the nation, California officials thought they had come up with a promising route to clean up the air - cracking down on the worst-polluting cars.

But the aggressive new program is running into speed bumps on the road to reality. Radio talk show hosts have led an effort to crush it by raising fears of an Orwellian government swooping down to confiscate cars - a scenario that government officials insist will never happen.

The controversy is just the latest in an enduring battle over how far California should go in cleaning up its skies. As the nation's premier smog-busting laboratory, the state is being closely watched to see how it will resolve the tension between two beloved traditions here: the right to drive, unhindered, and the need to improve the environment.

"It's been literally weeks of misinformation and outright falsehoods," says State Sen. Quentin Kopp, a San Francisco Independent. "They have falsely alleged that cars have been confiscated. The untruths are legion."

Dubbed Smog Check II, the program represents California's effort to comply with the 1990 federal Clean Air Act signed by President Bush. The new antipollution program targets so-called "gross polluters" - vehicles that pollute two to 25 times more than average models of the same type and age - and has required owners to take them in for inspection at a government mandated garage. Cars that fail must get repairs to reduce their emissions before the California Bureau of Automotive Repair will issue their owners new car registrations.

The first phase of the program, which began in June, has identified some 95,000 gross polluters. Next spring and summer, the state will launch more aggressive efforts to target car owners in the most polluted regions of the state, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, and areas of the Central Valley. Using computer records and roadside infrared detectors, which snap photos of license plates, the state expects the clampdown to snare 15 percent of California's 22 million cars.

In the most highly polluted areas, about 15 percent of the gross polluters will have to go to state-contracted, centralized auto shops for inspections rather than local smog shops, or garages. The federal government originally wanted all inspections conducted at selected, centralized auto shops - which are thought to give more accurate tests and reduce fraud - instead of letting drivers use any one of the California's 8,000 smog shops. But state officials, mindful of the political fallout from irate motorists, brokered the more limited program.

Deflecting criticism has been a concern. Officials have had to deny rumors they might confiscate or impound cars. The state also plans to offer a buy-back program, allowing owners of older autos to scrap their cars in exchange for cash. But efforts to assuage critics have failed.

Led by Bay Area talk radio stations KSFO and KGO, opponents have assailed the program as an example of intrusive government run amok. A rally in Sacramento drew 3,000 protesters on Aug. 21. And State Sen. Mike Thompson (D), a supporter of the plan, reported receiving a death threat from one man who feared the government would seize his pickup. Critics say the plan will expand bureaucracy and place a heavy burden on the poor and elderly who tend to own older cars, and the cost of repairs and smog checks is expected to rise.

The fledgling program has been beset by slip-ups, compounding California's woes. For the first several weeks, callers jammed phone lines and some were unable to schedule inspections. "People were inconvenienced," says Senator Kopp.

The state Bureau of Automotive Repair says it has added more phone lines, halved the 40-minute waiting time at its auto shops, and granted 60-day waivers to some motorists. "We don't want consumers to wait an inordinate amount of time," says Maria Chacon Kniestedt, a bureau spokeswoman. "We're doing a lot of different things to make sure that doesn't happen."

Not enough in some eyes. "It's a bureaucratic tangle," says Alameda resident Brian Phelps, whose 1986 Toyota was labeled a gross polluter in July. "It's testimony to why people hate government."

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