STARTING TOMORROW, most vehicle owners in the state must put their automobiles through a controversial treadmill test (the dynamometer) as part of the required two-year emissions inspection program. Previously, the treadmill test had been voluntary. Yet judging from the half-million motorists who have already experienced the dynamometer, it's no big deal.
The chief beneficiaries of this change will be all who breathe in the state. The very young, the elderly and the 600,000 Marylanders with respiratory problems are most vulnerable to auto-caused smog. The problem is especially acute in Baltimore, which ranks among the worst smog cities in the United States.
How effective will this test be? Shutting down all power plants in Maryland would not equal the air pollution reduction achieved by this advanced system of emissions testing at 19 state centers. No other proposal is as efficient in cutting harmful auto pollution levels. The expected reductions with dynamometer testing are four times larger than emissions reductions achieved with the traditional tailpipe test.
Admittedly, the program has been controversial. Poor past performance by the contractor running these centers has hurt credibility. Owners are uneasy entrusting their vehicles to employees who will drive the cars at high speeds on a treadmill. There's also a suspicion that business polluters are getting a break at the expense of individual motorists.
State officials confidently answer these objections. Contractor staffing and equipment have improved; waiting lines at test centers have shrunk. Damage to autos using the voluntary dynamometer was negligible -- about three per 10,000 tests, mostly scuffed sidewalls or hubcaps. And the U.S. government is cracking down on big smokestack polluters.
Whether the contractor, MARTA Technologies Inc., is able to perform tests efficiently and earn the public's trust remains a crucial question. It's a big step from testing fewer than half the state's vehicles on the dynamometer to testing them all.
Citizens should hold MARTA and the state strictly accountable for performance, especially since the requirement for this advanced test method was twice delayed by Maryland officials to correct problems. That means computers and other apparatus should work, lanes should be open, employees should be polite and punctual. Eventually, it also should mean adding a second, conveniently located test center for populous Baltimore County; Montgomery County already has three.
Pub Date: 9/30/97