Reporter's Notes: Smog Checks Made Easy

Have you heard about the 1-800-Exhaust program?

One interesting little sidetrack I got stuck on while I was reporting this story was the 1-800-Exhaust program. Maybe you've seen the billboards along I-80 near the Bay Bridge? If not, you will soon. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (the same people who bring you Spare the Air days) has kicked off a new campaign to promote the program. In a nutshell, it allows you to call in (or go online) and report the license plate numbers of cars that seem to be spewing more smoke than they should be.

Then what happens?

Well, some people might be disappointed to hear that there are no punitive consequences for these drivers. No fines, no demand that they report to the nearest smog check station, stat. Instead, the car's registered owner gets a letter in the mail – one BAAQMD spokesman I talked to called it an "informal survey" -- asking, among other things, whether the car has been repaired. The response, so far, has been pretty underwhelming.

Last year, just over 10,000 cars were reported, and 10,000 letters sent out. Less than a hundred came back. Twelve people said that their cars had been repaired (it's not clear how many of them had already repaired the cars, and how many did so after receiving the letters).


Air District officials stress that reply rates aren't really the point here. The goal, they say, is to get people to realize that their cars don't operate in a vacuum. How well you maintain your car has real and measurable effects on people's health (including anyone sitting in the back seat).

The letters also let people know about a program that doesn't get a lot of coverage elsewhere, although it should. It's called the Vehicle Buy Back Program, and it's worth $1,000 to anyone who owns a registered car 1989 or older. It's kind of like a local version of Cash for Clunkers. Not hard to see why these programs make so much sense: some of those old cars pollute ten or even a hundred times as much as a new one. That 1966 Volvo I had when I was 17 seems a little less wonderful, in hindsight.

Listen to Smog Checks Made Easy radio report online.

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