Drive Clean or Drive Less

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 24, 2006

Last weekend, a friendly police officer pulled my wife over and informed her that our car's sticker was expired, advising her to renew it at her earliest convenience.

The moon is in the seventh house and Mars is falling into Sagittarius, so the car needed to pass an emissions test before we could renew the sticker.

For anyone living outside of Ontario or just waking up from a seven year coma, the Harris government in Ontario introduced a new program in 1999 called Drive Clean to test cars regularly for tailpipe emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons (HC) including volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide (CO).

The accredited mechanic puts your car on a dynanometer (kind of a treadmill for cars), revs it up to 2,500 RPM and tests, and then reduces it to idle and tests again. If your car's emissions of any of the measured gases exceeds the allowable limit (based on the car's model and year), then you must repair the car (up to $450) and have it re-tested.

Our mechanic is wonderful, friendly, and honest, but he doesn't do e-tests, so he suggested another mechanic with the slim recommenation, "He's the nearest one."

Our car is a 2001 Honda Civic, driven infrequently and maintained regularly. We assumed it would pass with no problem when we took it in on Monday, so we were shocked when it failed on NOx. The allowable limit was 576 parts per million (PPM), but our car blew way over with 1,218 PPM.

The mechanic who tested the car refused to speculate on why the car failed, insisting instead that we would have to pay him to look at it and find the problem. Instead, we took the car home and contacted our regular mechanic instead.

His response was interesting: "You don't drive enough." The car had 43,000 KM when we bought it, and we've driven an average of 8,000 kilometres a year since then. Apparently, crud builds up when you don't take it on the highway.

Consider what this means: we drive only 40 percent of the national average driving distance of 20,000 km/year. Right off the bat, we've reduced our emissions by 60 percent compared to the average driver. (If you consider that we have only one car between us, we've actually reduced our emissions by 80 percent compared to the average two-car household.)

However, because we didn't take our car on the highway recently, the car failed the emissions test. If that's not ironic enough, our mechanic advised us to dump a bottle of fuel injector cleaner into the tank and take it for a good run on the highway before testing it again. He also suggested we go to a different mechanic for the second test.

So off we went to Woodstock, where Hwy 403 meets Hwy 401 in a colossal snarl of on-ramps. It was a 150 km round trip in a polluting car with a single purpose: to demonstrating that our car doesn't pollute!

By the time we returned to Hamilton, the tester at the other shop had left for the night, so we had to put the second test off until Tuesday morning.

Just to be safe, my wife drove the car up and down the Lincoln Alexander Parkway a couple of times to be sure the engine was good and hot before the test - again, ironically, polluting the air unnecessarily to prove that our car doesn't pollute the air unnecessarily.

Not only did the car pass this time, but the NOx component, which had measured 1,218 PPM in the first test, measured exactly 2 PPM in the second test. The tester did a double-take when my wife showed him the results of the first test, insisting there was no way our modest efforts to clean the exhaust system would bring NOx from 1,218 PPM to 2.

He said it was obvious the first mechanic had tested the car without warming the engine first, even though he had promised to to do this before conducting the test. Our own long-suffering mechanic confirmed this when my wife asked him later that day. The entire episode amounted to ploy and counter-ploy in our competing efforts to beat the test.

After experiencing firsthand how easy it is to "cook" the test parameters for Drive Clean, I find myself really skeptical that it's worth the price and hassle. I have worked before as a systems analyst developing productivity metrics, so I can appreciate how difficult it is to ensure that you're measuring what you think you're measuring. Clearly, the Drive Clean program is highly susceptible to manipulation by both car owner and mechanic, each for his or her personal benefit.

The Hamilton Spectator conducted an excellent investigation into the Drive Clean program in 2004, documenting how variable the test results can be, even for the same car on the same day, and how easy it is for interested parties to falsify test results by manipulating the test conditions. Read it here: Smokescreen: Exposing Drive Clean.

Instead of spinning our wheels (literally) in a bloated, expensive scheme with poor accountability and very little oversight, it seems to me to make much more sense simply to reduce the number and size of cars on the road at the point of production. Mandate more robust fuel economy targets, invest in fast, clean, reliable public transit, and build neighbourhoods that don't require people to drive everywhere. Now that's the test we should be trying to pass.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted April 02, 2006 at 02:34:08

Drive clean is a disaster, primarily because offending people is politically incorrect.

To make it work, it needs major restructuring, insisting that the changes are cost neutral.

For example:

1) doing tests based on previous statistics - buy a car with a history of high pass rate and drop the frequency down to every 5 years or something and/or delay first testing.

2) Test really bad engines every year, again based on history.(my nose tells me VW (gasoline) and chrysler minivans - but where are the real stats though? hidden for company privilege maybe?)

3)test more often as it gets older

4) no expiry age for vehicles (omitting those over 20 years old is just criminal)

5) 1-800-YOU-STNK rat line

6) portable sniffers / license cameras that send you a date with your garage if you drive by and set off the machine (triggering a free test of course)

But none of this will happen because common sense is dead.

The liberals will apply window dressing and lie about how great it is.

Conservatives will tell you more honestly that it doesn't work, therefore it should be scrapped.

Both are wrong.

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By Richardbh (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2008 at 09:57:28

I'm a bit frustrated with Drive Clean.

If you fail the test and the estimated repairs are greater than $450 - you can get an exemption for 1 year.

I have an estimate of $712 to repair a leak in my exhaust. The leak needs to be repaired before they will do the test. But because it is pre-test repair the $450 rule does not apply!!!

So my car might be fine and pass the test, but they can't do the test without $712 in repairs!!



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By smoky (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 19:55:13

just ridiculous system does not fail oil burners. ridiculous amount of diesel smokers out there .all the newer cars are so rediculus clean just wasting everbodys time and money. bi tested 100 cars never had 1 fail. the only failure is this program.most rediculus program by the government yet.but is like tal.the neww cars dontking to the wall.they are not solving nothing, need to tow the junk off the road.they got make the public think they are doing something.the only cure is getting all the junk off the road.i salute the new cars manufactures they are the ones that are solving the problem.province should remedy the traffic problem.we have the worst traffic jams. idiots running this country.

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By DBT (anonymous) | Posted July 31, 2009 at 10:54:00

that was the funniest little rant. Laughing with tears in my eyes. thats the beauty and the wisdom of the system.
Famous last words "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

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By Johny up the creek (anonymous) | Posted November 10, 2009 at 15:04:32

So I have a 2002 Honda civic and it has a short ram air intake and an after market exhaust.
I get my little envelop in the mail saying goodness its time for you to renew your sticker. Oh joy.
another $76.00 for the year gone on top of all the other great things we MUST pay for these days.
So I go at my convenience to a services Ontario machine in my mall and apply for a new sticker. To my surprise it asks me for my drive clean number. uh... ?
it would seem that someone failed to send me the little folded up piece of paper that states i require an E- Test before i can acquire a new sticker.
With two days till my sticker expires I run around frantically trying places to find one with a Dyno in the ground that wont bottom out my lowered car. finally after taking my bumper off just to make the garage owner feel ok about testing my car, they come out with : "ok so we have some bad news...
so you failed three of the test areas."
they speculate that it could be i need a new Catalytic converter and or a new O2 Sensor. Hm.
From reading this i understand that if its going to cost more than $450 i can be exempt for 1 year. now does that include the labor or is it just the the parts???
and does anyone know if the car needing an oil change would have affected the outcome of the test in any way?
I am also thinking about picking up a used air intake to put on the car. I feel like it would help my chances.
what a nightmare.
Thanks in advance.
Johnny up the creek.

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By Buttonup (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2009 at 19:20:05

If you want to seriously take all that "junk" off the road, start by paying people to do just that. In BC they used to give out $2250.00 to have owners scrap their older junk. The program was so popular that they had to reduce that amount to $1250.00. That is still a whole lot better than here in Ontario where they give you a measly $300.00 ( and it's federal cash).
It's called incentive.. and guess what it works. The provice needs to open their eyes, as the present E - test is all about just another cash cow. The real problem is not the junk on the road, the real problem is that there are too many vehicles on the road period.

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By BooHoo (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2010 at 08:47:13

Yep it's just another money racket!

Anyhoo...I have an old 1993 full size V8 van with 836,000 KMS and guess what? It passed everytime! How the hell could that be, you ask. Well here's my secret.
Make sure you have no vacuum leaks! Buy an vacuum gauge and test your engine(real EASY). Remove, clean and re-gap your sparkplugs or just replace them if really worn.

Take your distributor cap off (if you have one) and clean the white powder off the aluminium terminals inside, the rotor too, I use a dremel with a stainless steel brush. Check your sparkplug wires and replace if cracked. A good spark is needed to have good combustion.

Make sure your EGR valve is WORKING use a vacuum pump or just suck on the end of the vacuum hose and see if the valve stem moves up and down, if not then replace it.

Take the oxygen sensor out, clean it, then heat it up with a propane torch to make sure there is a voltage reading using a multimeter (I still have the ORIGINAL installed!!).

Check your MAPP sensor too, good electrical connection and no vacuum leaks.

The last secret is I make sure the catalytic converter is glowing red hot by running the engine fast in the parking lot until the guy comes to test it. Oh yeah if you have an oil burner, do an oil change using SYNTHETIC OIL. There are no hydrocarbons in synthetic! I also use a bottle of BARDAL Stop Smoke to thicken the oil and it boosts the oil pressure too.

High NOX means your caddy converter or more often your EGR is stuck!
High hydrocarbons means oil burner, so you need a synthetic oil change.

Don't let crook mechanics scam you into bullsh*t fuel injector cleaning and other useless crap just to get your $450!!

To get better millage I use 1 mL of acetone for every litre of gasoline and the engine runs damm nice and smoooooth with lots of pep! NO the acetone won't damage anything. All my gas lines are plastic and rubber and I've been putting in acetone for the last 5 years! I just use regular gas at either Petro or Canadian Tire.

Hope this helps someone out there to pass their vehicle.

I do all that every time I bring it in and the damm thing passes. Not bad for almost a million kms, eh? Good Luck!

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By stuart (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2011 at 12:53:57

Other tricks -put 3 gas line Antifreeze in your gas tank or a can of octane boost in then fill your tank up with high octane gas drive for 20 min this will pass every time and will clean out your motor ive done this for ten years my truck runs like a dream and all my friends do the same and pass every time

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