Time for Drive Clean to die?

Ontario's controversial Drive Clean emissions testing program is, after 14 years, ready to be shut down.

Whether it actually will be shut down, of course, is another matter entirely.

The original premise of Drive Clean made sense, at least on paper. The logic was simple: Air pollution is bad. Cars and trucks create a lot of air pollution. Some cars create grossly disproportionate amounts of pollution. Therefore, we should measure the tailpipe emissions of all road-going vehicles, and require that any gross polluters be repaired.

The testing equipment measured the concentration of several common pollutants – carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons – in the exhaust. Any given car's result was compared against a list of acceptable limits for cars of that type and age, with up to \$450 of repairs to the emission control systems being required if it failed. In the program's early years, quite a few sub-par vehicles were caught and repaired.

Car makers don't stand still, though, and around the time Drive Clean started up in 1999, they were hard at work deploying emission control systems that would be sure to beat any regulation that might get thrown at them in the near future. Today, virtually the entire light-duty fleet is made of vehicles from that era or newer, whose emissions of smog-forming pollutants are so low the testing equipment can barely register them.

With almost the entire fleet passing the tailpipe test with ease, the Ontario government figured there was no longer any need to actually test tailpipe emissions. The Drive Clean test was redesigned for 2013 to be a simple self-diagnostic using the car's own engine computer. If the on-board computer has run a complete diagnostic cycle without seeing anything worthy of a "Check Engine" light, the car passes.

Quite a few credible voices are, therefore, questioning the ongoing need for the program, considering that few modern vehicles in more-or-less running condition can actually fail the test (although quite a lot of car computers are reporting "not ready", requring the owner to come back and pay for a second test a few days later) and almost anything old enough to lack an engine computer is exempt. There's even a rabid angry mob petitioning to shut the whole program down, claiming that it's become nothing more than a cash grab. Granted, many government programs attract such detractors, but this angry mob at least has some logic on their side.

Drive Clean is in a situation where it poses a nuisance to car owners (in the form of the time and cost of the test) but no longer serves any meaningful purpose (any genuine fault that would cause a car to fail Drive Clean will have already caused the car's computer to ask its owner for a shop visit). Such a program might still make sense in jurisdictions where there are still many older, polluting cars on the road, but here in Ontario – where we keep up with the technological times, at least on a decade-ish scale – there's nothing left for it to accomplish.

If an emissions testing program isn't actually going to test emissions, we may as well scrap it and devote those resources to something more useful.



Add new comment