Policy Analysis No. 249

The Smog-Reduction Road: Remote Sensing vs. The Clean Air Act

Executive Summary

The 1992 amendments to the Clean Air Act mandated that local governments that violate federal ozone (urban smog) standards abide by a dizzying array of regulations, many of the most controversial of which—centralized state inspection and maintenance programs, carpooling requirements, zero-emission vehicle sales quotas, use of alternative fuels, and new-vehicle emission standards—are intended to control automobile emissions.

Both empirical evidence and candid reflection suggest that current approaches to vehicle pollution are extremely inefficient, economically costly, and of only limited help in improving air quality. The use of remote sensors, mobile, roadside emission-sensing devices, could do more to improve air quality than all other approaches combined at only a fraction of the cost. Moreover, a remote-sensing program would embody the concept that the polluter—not society at large—should pay for pollution. But remote sensing is largely neglected by the Clean Air Act.

A detailed examination of how such a program could be implemented in Los Angeles indicates that remote sensing would prove far more effective and about five times less costly than the current decentralized inspection and maintenance program, known as Smog-Check.

Accordingly, Congress should amend the Clean Air Act to allow states to adopt remote-sensing programs in place of the unpopular and less effective programs currently required by the act. Such a reform would be a boon to drivers everywhere and would better meet environmental goals.

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Daniel B. Klein is an assistant professor of economics and Pia Maria Koskenoja is a doctoral student of transportation economics at the University of California, Irvine.