Letter to the editor: It’s time to get polluting vehicles off our roads

Vermont prides itself with its clean environment and we advertise ourselves as an environmentally conscious culture with extensive recycling, bottle redemption, lack of billboards, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses. However, when it comes to putting our money where our mouth is we often come up short.
We are struggling to clean up our waterways and our air is not as pristine as we’d like to think. In fact, we exceed national standards for ozone pollution. Some excuse us because much of the problem is imported from states west of us. Nevertheless, the biggest contributor to pollution in the U.S. and likely in Vermont is vehicle emissions. As an environmentally friendly state shouldn’t we take seriously the contribution vehicles make to dirty air?
The latest step in cleaning up our air is the enforcement of decades old rules regarding vehicle pollution. Pollution-control devices were first installed on vehicles in 1971 when research revealed that cars polluted the most when parked in a parking lot, because gasoline evaporated from the fuel tanks. This not only polluted the air with unburned hydrocarbons it also reduced the mileage vehicles could get, and that cost the owners’ additional money.
For example, a car might lose 5 miles per gallon because of malfunctioning emission control devices; at $2.30 per gallon if they were to drive 20,000 miles in a year the additional cost of gasoline would be $460. Consequently, creating emission controls actually saved the car owner money as well as cleaning the environment.
The industry faced big challenges to create the technology that solved the problem. During the decade of the’80s in particular, when computer control of carburetors was tried, there were huge problems. Car owners and garages replaced catalytic convertors with straight pipes in order for the cars to run properly, bypassing control devices and creating pollution.
Slowly the industry invented remarkable advances in fuel injection and other electronic devices to have cars run cleaner, with more power and consume less gasoline. So much improvement in gas mileage, in fact, has reduced the fuel tax revenue in transportation funds, both at the state and national level, which are no longer able to keep up with proper road and bridge maintenance.
In 1997 the industry had pretty much solved the problems and designed car computer control systems that would self-identify problems that could then be repaired by qualified technicians. The federal government then required extended warranties for emission related problems and required states to enforce proper operation of emission control devices in order to help clean up the air in America and help Americans save money on fuel costs.
States have balked at adequate enforcement. There was a particularly disastrous attempt in Maine to test the tailpipe emissions of every car during the annual inspection of those vehicles, using dynamometers and gas analyzing computers. Vermont was involved in a similar effort when the Maine problem came to the surface. In the early 2000s, instead of using Maine’s methodology, Vermont elected to require the inspection procedure to use the “check engine” light to verify that the vehicle met federal standards in force when the vehicle was built. Many Vermont inspection stations have ignored the requirement and the state has not enforced the rule.
The next improvement in making sure vehicles are not polluting is the technology associated with the annual inspection of vehicles in Vermont. This is partly related to two tragic accidents in which mechanical or hydraulic brake failures resulted in court action. It became apparent that Vermont needed to do a better job of making sure that the inspection process results in our citizens driving safe vehicles and that the lives of the owners of those vehicles and the general public have some assurance that the cars on the road are safe. This technology improvement to the inspection process also allowed the state to have an enforcement process to verify that vehicles had properly functioning emission control devices.
It has turned out that one of the most stubborn problems still is the evaporation of fuel from parked cars. Volkswagon had a particular problem with gas caps not sealing properly and even today, the most common reasons for the failure of emission controls on cars and the subsequent illumination of the check engine light is the evaporative control system on cars.
The fix to this problem is usually relatively inexpensive (either the recognition that one must tighten the gas cap tighter or purchase a new gas cap). I even had an experience in very cold weather when I fueled my car with it still running. Removing the gas cap when it was running resulted in setting the “check engine” light.
The new enforcement capability that electronic reporting of vehicle inspection results has caused somewhat of a discussion as to whether or not we should actually require dirty vehicles to run properly. Some have suggested that older cars should be exempted because they are owned by our neediest Vermonters. I don’t think there is any data to inform us as to who owns these vehicles. My wife and I own a 1998 vehicle and we are not among Vermont’s neediest. The math indicates that unless the cost exceeds $400 most vehicles owned by Vermonters would recoup the cost of repairs within a year and in the case of fuel evaporation in a few weeks.
Fully exempting these vehicles for 10 or 15 years makes no sense whatsoever, especially since we are contemplating taxing every Vermont land owner in order to clean up our water. If you think that low-income citizens should be afforded the ability to pollute the environment because the higher mileage they would get from having their vehicles run properly doesn’t offset the cost of repair, then for goodness sake make it a date certain instead of a rolling 10 or 15 year exemption. In that case, at least, eventually we would protect the environment. Or perhaps subsidy programs, or a buyback program, but surely not continuing to allow the dirtiest vehicles on the road to continue polluting.
Dave Sharpe
Dave Sharpe is a former longtime Vermont State Representative and auto mechanic.

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