With newer, cleaner cars on the road, is Washington’s vehicle emission test still necessary?

Turns out, the state has been preparing to get rid of the emissions test for years. The law is set to expire at the end of 2019.

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Air pollution: Bad. Cars that meet environmental standards: Good.

Tests to check that older vehicles in Washington’s most-populous areas conform with emission regulations: Mandatory.

But with a growing number of fresh and cleaner cars on the road that meet clean-air standards, are the inspections — which cost at least $15 per vehicle and pertain only to certain models — still necessary?

“I realize diesel trucks and leaded-gas vehicles pollute the air, but they are a petite minority,” Gordon Knuth, of North Seattle, wrote to Traffic Lab, asking about the need for the tests. “I’m beginning to think the test is a moneymaker for the county.”

To reaction, we contacted the state Department of Ecology and an emissions pro, dived into The Seattle Times archives and looked at programs elsewhere.

Turns out, as car technology has evolved and more vehicles use electrical play or cleaner fuels to run, Washington officials have been preparing for the end of the emission-testing program — which is run by the state, not the counties.

The law requiring the test is set to expire Dec. 31, 2019.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

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“A car’s computers can tell you everything, such as how tightly your gas cap is fitting, what your fuel efficiency is and even what your wheel speed is to control the brakes,” The Seattle Times reported in August 2011. “Now this fresh technology has an added bonus: It’s part of the reason behind the easing up and eventually phasing out of the” law.

The state began emissions tests in 1982, soon after the state Legislature established the system using standards in the federal Clean Air Act.

“Since that time, cars have gotten cleaner and cleaner,” said Camille St. Onge, of the Ecology department. However lawmakers could establish another program after the law finishes, she said, “that’s not anticipated.”

Now, federal standards regulating vehicle pollution keep emissions low.

Washington officials are hoping that remains true in 2020, after the law expires. The current federal administration, however, could loosen the requirements.

States across the country launched similar inspection programs to control air pollution in very populated areas, to help conform with the Clean Air Act.

Some states, including Kentucky and Minnesota, have since ended their testing programs. Presently, twenty nine states, including Washington, have some type of emissions-testing program, St. Onge said.

Washington lawmakers over the years have updated the law’s requirements so that newer cars are exempt. That’s led to a general decline in the number of vehicles needing the tests.

Right now, fleet operators and owners of vehicles with certain manufacturing dates before 2009, except for some hybrids and fresh or low-weight diesels, need the inspections. (You can check to see if your vehicle must be tested at the Washington Vehicle Emission Check Program’s website.)

Last year, crews tested about 900,000 vehicles — about 280,000 fewer than in 2013, according to the Ecology Department.

A contractor operates sixteen facilities for the state to do the tests, in which crews use a computerized system to detect malfunctioning or modified equipment and determine emission levels. Those cost a standard $15 fee.

So, to get back to Gordon Knuth’s question, are those fees a constant source of government revenue?

Not truly. Most of the fee goes to the contractor that runs the program. The state keeps $Trio.62 for each test to cover administration and oversight costs, St. Onge said.

Budget estimates display the program will generate about $Five.Two million for the state in the 2015-17 two-year budget, she said. During that same time, the Department of Ecology will spend about $Four.Three million to administer the testing program.

The state Department of Enterprise Services gets the rest of the money for its work overseeing the agreement inbetween the state and the contractor, St. Onge said.

A select group of auto shops in Washington can do the same test, with approval from the state, however there’s no limit to what they charge. St. Onge said the costs range as high as $Sixty nine.95 per test.

Drivers must demonstrate passing results when they renew their license tabs or register their vehicles. Or, if they fail numerous times, after spending at least $150 attempting to fix the problem, they can get waivers for that test cycle.

Chris Frey, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University, said the inspections aim to identify both vehicle malfunctions and people who have tampered with emission-control systems.

“Anytime you have an emission control in the tailpipe, there’s an chance for it to fail,” said Frey, who specializes in fuel use and vehicle emissions.

Malfunctioning parts can raise emission levels ten to one hundred times higher than that of decently working vehicles, Frey said.

The failure rate for newer vehicles is very low, however, so there’s less of a benefit studying those compared to older models, he said.

Ultimately, Frey said, government programs to control emissions are about the adverse effects of pollution that take a toll on public health and the environment.

Research connects soot and smog to heart and lung diseases, with pollution killing more than four million people worldwide each year, Susan Anenberg, a researcher at Environmental Health Analytics and a former U.S. government scientist, told The Associated Press.

In Seattle, leaders have made commitments to cut greenhouse-gas pollution over the long term, especially from the city’s vehicle fleet.

Inbetween two thousand ten and 2016, toughly 22,080 plug-in electrified vehicles were registered in Washington, according to a June two thousand seventeen report by the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. About twenty two percent were in Seattle.

For questions about Washington’s emission testing, contact the Department of Ecology at 800-272-3780.

Got a question for Traffic Lab?

Last week, we described why those electronic traffic signs above arterials sometimes showcase wrong information. The week before that, we explained how push-to-walk buttons at crosswalks work.

If you have a question or idea for us, send it to traff[email protected]. We may feature it in an upcoming column.

The opinions voiced in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.

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