Treadmill up and running Emissions: The much-debated dynamometer test, which became mandatory yesterday, drew mixed reviews from motorists.

October 02, 1997|By Peter Jensen and Melody Simmons | Peter Jensen and Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

From Hagerstown to Grasonville, motorists who ventured into vehicle emissions testing centers yesterday discovered their universe had changed.

The good news: No waiting, at least not on the first day of mandatory dynamometer testing. The bad news: Check out those last three words.

For the first time, car owners in Baltimore and 13 counties had no choice but to confront the hotly debated treadmill test so touted by environmentalists and dreaded by talk show hosts and car enthusiasts.

They watched in glass-enclosed waiting rooms as cheerful strangers took their keys and drove their cars on rollers at speeds equivalent to 55 mph.

For some it was an annoyance. For most, no big deal. A few even lightheartedly embraced it, happy with any potential for less smog floating around Maryland's future.

"I knew today was the day but I didn't care -- I don't really have a problem with it," said Floyd Green, 43, a Bell Atlantic Corp. cable splicer who brought in his wife's 1992 Toyota Camry.

"I didn't come in here scared my car was going to veer off the treadmill and get launched into some wall," Green said.

State officials and the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program contractor, MARTA Technologies Inc. of Nashville, pronounced the transition from the old tailpipe test begun in 1986 to the mandatory dynamometer a great success, but the assessment may have been premature.

Only about 600 of the $12 tests were administered yesterday -- one-fifth the normal workload for the state's 19 testing centers and a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million vehicles that they must handle each year.

That's because the Motor Vehicle Administration mailed out its most recent batch of testing notices this week after an eight-week hiatus. Most of those who showed up at test stations yesterday were weeks overdue.

"We didn't want to change the rules midstream from an optional to a mandatory dynamometer," said Anne S. Ferro, MVA administrator. "But we saw people come in today feeling cautious about the treadmill and leave quite comfortable [with it]."

With its stricter emissions standards, a higher failure rate and the likelihood car owners would face more expensive emissions-related repairs, the treadmill test was never expected be a crowd pleaser. Plenty came in feeling skeptical and left feeling pretty much the same way.

"I heard the test can ruin your car," said Elwood Carter, who watched his 1988 Subaru station wagon spin its wheels -- and pass the test -- in Annapolis. "I'm being forced to do it. I think emissions testing is a joke."

At what is normally one of the state's busiest testing stations in East Baltimore, MARTA employees easily outnumbered customers by a 2-1 margin, and supervisors were out in force. Official "greeters" were even available to answer questions -- a far cry from the early days of emissions testing, when surly employees and balky equipment set the standard.

"I think today has been a banner day," said MARTA President Jerry Carter, who toured emissions testing centers around Baltimore. "It's worked quite well. Today shows the test is reliable and a safe test. It's easy, too."

Carter said MARTA employees have undergone customer service training recently to correct complaints last year of

rudeness and testing delays. And most workers are dynamometer veterans by now: Roughly 500,000 Maryland motorists volunteered to take the test over the past year.

"A lot of work has been put into the employees and their understanding of the importance of training," Carter said.

But not everyone walked away happy. In Annapolis, Jason Herold was refused a test because he wanted to remain in his car with two infants who had been napping. He ended up with a refund and will have to come back.

Donna Dawson, 39, a former Bel Air resident now living on the Eastern Shore, fumed as technicians in a Baltimore station twice stalled her car. Of course, it didn't help that she had no key and her sedan required a screwdriver to be started. She was instructed to get the ignition fixed and come back later for a test.

"I wouldn't move to Baltimore for all the money in the world," said Dawson, who earlier in the day paid $270 to retrieve her car from where it was impounded by police after she failed to take an emissions exam last year.

MVA Administrator Ferro said the Annapolis incident was a mistake, and Herold should have been allowed to keep his children in safety seats. But she said it remains a policy that cars judged unsafe to run on the treadmill will be refused a test.

For some people, that can be a benefit, of course. When Marc Panayis arrived at the Glen Burnie test center, he found out his '93 Toyota Supra rode too low to the ground to be tested safely on the treadmill. The car received the less-demanding tailpipe test instead and passed easily.

"It didn't matter to me anyway," said the 33-year-old Linthicum resident.

State officials said they have found similar problems with a small percentage of vehicle models. For instance, cars with a "traction control" feature requiring all four wheels to move at identical speeds aren't tested for fear they might be damaged.

"If the cars look like they might be put at risk, we don't test them," said Ferro. "Our employees should err on the side of caution."

Watching treadmill neophytes confront their car's testing report card is not unlike watching parents try to interpret their child's SAT score. Nine of 10 cars pass, but what does it really mean when you discover your car generates 0.06 grams per million of hydrocarbons and 0.3 grams per million of nitrogen oxides?

"You treat your car good, and it will treat you good," said Antwain Needum, 21, proud owner of a passing 1988 Acura Legend that won't require inspection again for two years. "I knew she'd do OK."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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