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Critics say new Ontario Drive Clean test is a waste of money

By Ryan Wolstat, Toronto Sun

Vehicle emissions inspector Shabby Ghandehari administers a new Drive Clean test at Cam's Auto Service in Toronto on Friday, May 31, 2013. (Dave Thomas/Toronto Sun)

Vehicle emissions inspector Shabby Ghandehari administers a new Drive Clean test at Cam's Auto Service in Toronto on Friday, May 31, 2013. (Dave Thomas/Toronto Sun)

TORONTO - 

At Cam’s Automotive Service in downtown Toronto, about 20 vehicles go through the Drive Clean test every day.

It’s a busy shop.

The bays are full, mechanics bend, squat and move around vehicles to the accompaniment of the banging and clanging sounds of a garage and the parking lot outside is jammed with cars.

Inside a dynamometer, the testing machine used across Ontario since the program was instituted in 1999 by measuring tailpipe emissions, sits collecting dust, an expensive relic.

This past January, shops across the province started using new test machines that read on-board vehicle computers.

Drive Clean is a mandatory $35 (plus tax) test required every two years for vehicles seven years or older.

If your car fails, you can’t renew your licence plate sticker.

But most don’t.

Over the past few years, 95% of all cars and light trucks passed on the first try and 90% have done so every year since 2004.

That changed in January after Ontario’s Liberal government introduced a new on-board diagnostic (OBD) test for more than 2.5 million cars and light-duty trucks and more than 100,000 heavy-duty trucks every year.

Instead of measuring tail pipe emissions, private-sector garages accredited by the province check on-board computers built into all 1998 and newer vehicles for the condition and operation of key emissions control equipment.

It’s a more stringent test, meaning more cars fail and the government estimates initial failure rates will double from 5% under the old test to 10% in 2013 — about 270,000 cars and light-duty trucks.

And there are bugs and problems that are frustrating drivers.

Many failures are the result of a “not ready” message that can be caused by a number of problems, including if your battery’s been drained and erased emissions data in your car’s computer, or simply not driving “under the conditions to run all monitors.”

The government-recommended solution, drive your car around for a couple of days, get it re-tested, again for a fee, and spend up to $450 on repairs if needed.

Not surprisingly, the mechanics at Cam’s are supportive of the program and feel it helps people keep their cars in good operating condition.

However, critics question what value, if any, motorists and the broader public get out of the program.

They argue Drive Clean is increasingly unnecessary, bureaucratic, a cash grab for government and garages and fails to do all that much for the environment.

In short, a program that has outlived its usefulness.

“It’s typical government regulation,” said the Fraser Institute’s Ken Green. “Rather than targeting the offending population of vehicles it’s better that everyone go and get their cars tested.”

The result, Green said, is “an industry of tailpipe testers who permanently lobby for more testing... to perpetuate the scheme.”

The hard evidence doesn’t look good for Drive Clean.

Ontario’s former auditor general Jim McCarter issued a 2012 report that raised serious questions about the relevance and necessity of Drive Clean.

McCarter went so far as to suggest the province “formally evaluate the extent to which the Drive Clean program continues to be an effective initiative in reducing smog relative to the cost.”

“Vehicle emissions have declined so significantly from 1998 to 2010 that they are no longer among the major domestic contributors of smog in Ontario,” he wrote.

And McCarter found that “75% of the reduction in vehicle emissions since the program’s inception is actually due to factors other than the Drive Clean program, such as tighter manufacturing standards on emission-control technologies, federal requirements for cleaner fuels and ongoing retirement of old vehicles.”

Drive Clean suffers from a host of other ills, ranging from the fact that the oldest, worst-polluting vehicles are exempt from emissions testing to a finding that just one of every 34 Drive Clean facilities caught overcharging vehicle owners for tests were suspended or terminated as required by ministry policy.

Meanwhile, the need, effectiveness and popularity of vehicle testing programs elsewhere are being questioned.

British Columbia, which pioneered Canada’s first emissions testing program and helped inspire Drive Clean, is phasing out its AirCare program at the end of 2014.

“Newer makes and models of light-duty vehicles are not the prime source of the blue smoke and pollution experienced on the road today,” B.C. environment minister Terry Lake said last year. “When you look at most cars now, they run a lot cleaner than the vehicles rolling off the line when AirCare started in 1992.”

Ontario Progressive Conservatives are promising to do the same thing here.

“The Liberals knew their new test would increase the failure rate, yet they introduced it earlier this year against the advice of the auditor general,” P.C. environment critic Michael Harris said. “To me, this seems like another cynical attempt to justify a program that’s evolved into nothing more than a government cash grab.”

Although Drive Clean is required to be “revenue neutral,” the Ontario government collects $30 million annually in fees and spends just $19 million on the program. The surplus is on target to hit $50 million by 2018, according to the auditor.

And Harris maintains it’s unpopular. More than 10,000 motorists have signed a petition to send Drive Clean to the scrap heap and the numbers keep increasing as more people deal with the new way of testing, he said.

“Most of the cars pass, so they needed to drum up a way to continue with this bureaucracy. So what did they do? They implemented this flawed way of testing that did spike the failure rates, but it wasn’t because of emissions it was because of a computer glitch,” he said.

For his part, Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley has rejected calls to phase out Drive Clean, maintaining Ontario’s air would be worse without it.

“Automobiles are the single largest domestic source of smog pollution in Ontario — even with technological improvements to cars and cleaner fuels,” Bradley said. “In 2010, approximately 35,000 tonnes of smog-causing pollutants were kept out of our air through the program. Drive Clean saves lives.

“You don’t see junkers spewing black smoke on the road anymore — they can’t pass the Drive Clean test.

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Drive Clean facts:

  • Program introduced in 1999 under then-Ontario premier Mike Harris.
  • Intended to reduce smog-creating nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by cars, light trucks and heavy duty trucks.
  • Prior to January 2013 most vehicles tested using dynamometer that measured tailpipe emissions.
  • In January 2013, new on-board, computer-based testing technology began.
  • More than 2.5 million light-duty vehicles and 100,000 heavy-duty vehicles subject to the Drive Clean test every year.
  • Test costs $35 plus tax and $17.50 plus sales tax for a re-test following failure.
  • There’s a $450 cap on repairs needed prior to a retest.
  • Ontario has almost 1,500 testing and repair facilities for light-duty vehicles and more than 500 testing and repair facilities for heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Drive Clean claims to have reduced smog-causing pollutants by 335,000 tonnes; carbon monoxide by about 3.18 million tonnes; and carbon dioxide by more than 296,000 tonnes

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