Guest Opinion: Clearing the air over vehicle emissions testing

Recent articles and editorials have incorrectly implied that the new On Board Diagnostics (OBD) emissions testing program was optional for the state to implement, when in fact it is a mandatory federal requirement. The program also has been depicted as unnecessary and costly for inspection stations and consumers. In my opinion, the OBD system and testing option is the most cost-effective, least invasive approach to reducing emissions from automobiles to help meet the long-term air pollution reduction goals of the state.

The state is committed, as it must be, to reducing air pollution from automobiles, the largest single in-state source of air pollution. We are also committed to providing the residents of New Hampshire the best value for their money. The federal requirement for vehicle emission inspections is contained in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. New Hampshire residents were potentially subject to lengthy, intrusive and expensive tailpipe testing for all 1980 and newer vehicles. On Board Diagnostics testing, in contrast, is not as invasive to the consumer and is much less costly for inspection stations. The flexibility to use this simple, fast and lower-cost OBD test in New Hampshire is the result of a compromise between the state and the Environmental Protection Agency to avoid the tailpipe test requirement.

New Hampshire has approximately 2,600 inspection stations statewide. Most of these stations have highly trained repair technicians who have been checking vehicle OBD systems for years in order to diagnose vehicle problems and do quality repairs. These up-to-date stations are well prepared to implement the emissions testing program. In recent days, however, quotes from a few inspection station owners inaccurately suggest that the bulk of the state’s licensed inspection stations are unprepared and unenthusiastic about the OBD emissions testing program.

In 2001, the Department of Environmental Services and the Department of Safety provided training on OBD inspections to over 1,500 certified inspectors statewide. At that time, the intent was to begin implementation of the program in January 2002. The program, however, was delayed when the state realized that, for a very low cost, the program could be made fully electronic, thus ensuring consistency statewide in the testing itself, reducing paperwork for the inspection stations, reducing potential fraud by allowing immediate detection of “rigged” tests and providing the state with the information necessary to fulfill all federal reporting requirements. The resulting program is faster, better and cheaper than what was envisioned in 2001.

Articles have incorrectly stated that two-thirds of the vehicles in the state are pre-1996 models, when actually two-thirds of the light-duty vehicles in the state are from 1996 or later. New Hampshire vehicle registration data indicates that our fleet is slightly newer than the national average. Thus, the vast majority of our vehicles will be 1996 or newer within the next few years.

DES recognizes that older vehicles can be problematic, as they tend to have higher emissions than newer vehicles. The fact that initially New Hampshire’s OBD program does not include these older vehicles was carefully weighed when negotiating the agreement with EPA. To offset these emissions, non-mandated emission reductions from some of the state’s power plants were secured.

The high cost of tailpipe testing was not justified, considering the fleet rollover combined with the benefits obtained under the OBD system.

In addition to meeting the state’s mandatory obligations to reduce automobile emissions, the OBD testing program provides many consumer benefits. OBD provides critical information on vehicle deficiencies that if corrected early can prevent much more expensive repairs from being needed in the future. For example, a bad spark plug left unrepaired could lead to significant engine misfire that may damage the cylinders or the catalytic converter.

The OBD system also provides a written report to the consumer with information on the specific problem, thus eliminating unnecessary repairs. This program allows the state to better monitor inspection data, thereby reducing the potential for fraud.

The need to address automobiles as the most significant in-state source of air pollution is clear. Although today’s cars are cleaner, because more cars hit New Hampshire’s roads everyday and people are driving more and more, it is important to keep them running clean. The OBD system accomplishes this in the most cost-effective manner with the least consumer burden while still meeting all federal and state air quality goals.

Michael Nolin is commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Services.

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