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.
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