Jim McFarland
October 27, 2010

Smog-Check Programs
Many states operate their own I/M programs in areas that the EPA has designated as a "nonattainment area," meaning that the area has not attained the EPA's required air quality. The EPA checks for carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide when designating these areas and when an area does not meet the standard for any individual pollutant, or any combination of the pollutants, then it is placed on the list of nonattainment areas.

To meet the EPA's emissions reduction requirements, many states are implementing more stringent emission inspection and maintenance programs. An I/M program may be currently operating in your state, or could be soon.

Many states have incorporated the OBD testing method as part of the vehicle emissions inspection for 1996 and newer vehicles. These OBD tests replace tailpipe tests by identifying emissions problems through information stored in the vehicle's onboard computer system. Some states have even proposed only testing vehicles with the OBD test, limiting the vehicles that need to be tested to those manufactured in 1996 and later.

The I/M 240 is an enhanced emissions testing program, with "240" representing the number of seconds that the tailpipe portion of the test lasts. I/M 240 tests require visual inspection of emissions control devices, an evaporative emissions test and a transient drive-cycle exhaust emissions test, performed while the vehicle is running on rollers. Many state programs mistakenly fail vehicles in the visual test based on the presence of aftermarket engine products or force older collector vehicles to undergo some type of testing.

Policy makers must properly focus inspection procedures and not confuse legitimate aftermarket parts with emission defeat devices and tampering violations. The hobby must also pursue proactive legislative initiatives to establish exemptions from inspections for low-mileage vehicles, classic vehicles (defined as 25 years old and older) and newer vehicles.

It is useful to remind legislators that the emissions from this small portion of the vehicle fleet are negligible. This is especially true when you consider the low miles typically driven by hobby vehicles and the excellent condition in which these vehicles are maintained.

New-Car Emissions Exemptions
It is not an effective use of resources to perform emissions tests on newer vehicles. The results of these tests predominately demonstrate no significant threats to air quality from these vehicles. New vehicles are regulated by the EPA, which provides strict emissions standards, which these vehicles have already met.

The idea behind exempting all classes of new vehicles is to reduce costs while not losing appreciable emission reductions. This strategy builds support for emission inspection programs, but also directs finite resources to where they will be most valuable in cleaning the air. Even California, the toughest state on vehicle emissions, recognized the benefits of exempting new vehicles and does not require smog checks to be performed on vehicles six model years old or newer.

Equipment Inspections
Understanding how vehicles and car parts are regulated can be a bit confusing. Here is a quick overview.

The Federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has the right to set, enforce and investigate safety standards for new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. These Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are performance-based. They do not dictate design elements. For example, the federal lighting standard prescribes the photometric requirements for a headlamp but does not dictate shape or size.

The FMVSS covers basic types of equipment (e.g. tires, rims, headlamps/tail lamps, brake hoses, etc.) and establishes vehicle crashworthiness requirements (front and side impact, roof crush resistance, fuel system integrity, etc.).

Emissions and emissions-related parts are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and various state agencies, primary of which is the California Air Resources Board. For products sold in California (and states that have adopted the California standards), manufacturers must conform to standards issued by the CARB.

Federal law prohibits states from issuing motor vehicle safety regulations that conflict with federal standards. This is called federal preemption. However, states are free to enact and enforce safety and equipment regulations, which are identical to the FMVSS or, in the absence of a federal rule, establish their own laws and regulations. The most frequent examples of individual state rules cover parts like "optional" or "accessory" lighting equipment, noise levels for exhaust and stereo systems, suspension height and window-tinting. States also establish rules on how a vehicle is titled and registered. State and local jurisdictions have authority to regulate inoperable vehicles or determine whether an enthusiast is engaged in a business vs. private activity. State and local law enforcement officials issue tickets and inspect cars.

State laws have evolved over many generations and they continue to change. Some laws are better than others, and there is a constant need to remind state policy makers not to be biased in favor of the vehicle's original equipment, such as lighting, tires and wheels, suspension components, and bumper/frame height. For example, some state laws allow motorists to be ticketed when an officer has made a subjective noise level determination that the exhaust system is "louder than what came with the car." To cite another example, bills have been introduced in state legislatures to ban spinners even though they are legal at the federal level. Opposing arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive equipment and inspection laws is a constant challenge.