Maryland emissions test primer

January 01, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Not since Uncle Sam dispatched "Greetings" has the public been more aware of an impending notice in the mail. Simply put, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration is drafting you and your car into the campaign for cleaner air.

The first batch of letters already has hit the post office. Beginning Tuesday, those owners will have 60 days to find out PTC

how much pollution their cars spew into the atmosphere.

In the coming year, an estimated 1.4 million cars will be required to be inspected at their owners' choice of 19 vehicle emissions testing stations scattered around the Baltimore-Washington region.

State officials said the test is not as fearsome as detractors portray. Most of the car owners who are summoned simply will pay a $17 fee, wait in line for less than 15 minutes, then their car will undergo a test that lasts 10 to 15 minutes.

But to many motorists the procedure will seem invasive and costly. An inspector, a high school graduate earning between $6 and $7 an hour with two weeks' training, will take your keys and drive your car on a treadmill at speeds of up to 55 mph.

If your car fails, you could face repair bills as high as $250, a limit that rises to $350 in 1996 and $450 in 1997 -- not to mention the bother of the return trip to the test station. MVA officials expect repairs to average $135 to $150. Under the previous testing program, a motorist had to spend a minimum of $150 on repairs to get a waiver from pollution requirements.

Cars, minivans, sport-utility vehicles and light trucks registered in Baltimore and the following counties will be tested: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Carroll, Cecil, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and Washington. (Six of the counties -- Calvert, Cecil, Charles, Frederick, Queen Anne's and Washington -- are new to the program.)

Because the new examination differs so much from the old, "it's going to be difficult for some people to hand over their keys," said Bruce E. Diehl, director of the emissions program for the MVA.

"But the experience isn't really any different from valet parking or going to the car wash," he said.

A car must be tested if it's a 1977 model or newer. Vehicles produced from 1977 through 1983 will not have to take the full test, only an abbreviated version identical to the tailpipe test given in the past.

The state recently decided to exclude new cars from the first two years of testing. Diesel and battery-powered autos, motorcycles and vehicles larger than 13 tons are exempt.

Stations will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Cars will undergo two tests. The primary one requires that the car be driven on a dynamometer, a treadmill that simulates a four-minute excursion. In the second test, air is forced into the car's evaporative system to check for leaks.

About one-quarter of the cars are exempt from the evaporative test. That's because equipment on certain models -- the Chevrolet Lumina, for instance -- is too difficult to reach.

If the necessary connections can't be reached without removing a piece of equipment from the engine, the evaporative test won't be performed, Mr. Diehl said.

Under the state's contract with MARTA Technologies Inc., the wait to take the emissions test can't be longer than 15 minutes for 85 percent of customers and 20 minutes for 95 percent. If that becomes a problem, MARTA may be forced to build additional testing lanes at the company's expense.

Drivers of failing cars will get an opportunity to discuss the results with a state employee who has at least four years' experience as a certified mechanic. He or she probably won't be able to determine the exact problem, Mr. Diehl said, but can tell a driver the likely culprits -- dirty spark plugs or a bad air filter, for instance.

An owner will have 90 days to make corrections and get a car retested. In 1996 and thereafter, the grace period is 120 days.

Repairs need not be performed at a certified emissions repair facility -- private repair shops certified by the state as having the necessary equipment and experience for emissions work. But your mechanic will have to fill out a form indicating what repairs were made.

The state plans to compile a "report card" on repair shops and make that available to the public in six months, Mr. Diehl said. The report will indicate how often cars visiting a particular repair shop subsequently pass when retested.

MARTA is required to train its 200 inspectors in customer service. Inspectors who drive cars through the test will wear clean uniforms and won't have their hands under the hood, Mr. Diehl said.

MARTA is also liable for a car while it's being tested. If something should happen to the vehicle, the owner may file a claim with the station manager.

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