DALLAS — Every year, North Texans spend a combined $145 million on auto emission and safety inspection tests. But critics say the tests are just a hassle for the overwhelming majority of drivers who drive clean cars.
So why not just focus on the cars that leave a black cloud in their wake, and leave the rest of us alone?
"Passing [an emissions test] does nothing to clean the air, at all," said University of Denver professor Don Stedman. "You've waited in line, you've spent money, but absolutely nothing to clean the air."
Stedman studies emissions tests, and says new cars are so clean we should just forget the one-size-fits-all solution — just find the bad guys.
"One percent of the cars is 30 percent of the hydrocarbons; that's a huge, huge number,” he said.
Ed Martin is North Texas Operations Manager for the Mobil One chain of oil change centers. They are among the 2,000 local shops that administer the emissions tests.
"Are drivers getting a good value when they buy this test? "Not right now," Martin said. "They really are not."
Last year, the Department of Public Safety, which runs the program, was criticized by the Texas Legislature for failing to ensure the vehicle inspection program works well.
Martin said the pass/fail emissions test is out of date and offer drivers no information about why a car fails.
And as for the safety check that's part of the exam?
"I know of no significant changes in the last 25 or 30 years to the safety program," Martin said.
Chris Klaus administers the clean air program for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. He said there is a better, smarter, less intrusive way to run a program in which so many cars pass. "That's where, I think, remote sensing comes in."
Remote sensors use a beam of light to detect emission levels while a camera snaps a picture of your license plate. Professor Stedman invented the technology 20 years ago, and is paid a royalty from sales.
In some states, vehicles that test clean on the road are exempt from an emissions test in a shop. Experts say it reliably identifies the worst offenders.
"You have to have a program to deal with them somehow,” Stedman said.
Starting next month, NCTCOG will launch a pilot program using remote sensors to find the worst pollution offenders. Gross emitting drivers will get letters asking them to clean up their act, along with an offer of financial assistance to make repairs, if they qualify.
Klaus said at some point, violators may get a ticket, not just a warning. But for now, that's not the plan.
Neither is scrapping the emissions testing program as North Texas is under increasing federal pressure to improve air quality.
But how well does a one-size-fits-all solution fix the problem?
"If the problem is you have to pass a test, they'll find a way to pass the test," Stedman said. "If the problem is you're not allowed to drive a gross emitter on the road — and you're penalized somehow for doing that — then hopefully you'll find a way to stop doing that. That's what we really care about."