Automobile Emissions Inspections in Pennsylvania

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Hotline, Spring 2002

by Beth Toor, GASP Board Member

In 2001 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) convened an Emissions Inspection Policy Review Group (EIPRG) to recommend changes in the Vehicle Emission Inspection and Maintenance Program to take advantage of the Onboard Diagnostics (OBD) instrumentation present in 1996 and later model cars, and possibly of other emerging technologies.

Onboard diagnostic systems monitor the operation of vehicle emissions control computers, which promote efficient engine operation and the lowest possible emissions. The OBD system alerts the driver with a dashboard light if a malfunction occurs, and helps mechanics diagnose and repair emission malfunctions. The systems can also be connected to inspection equipment to determine whether the engine is burning fuel cleanly. OBD inspection is quicker, more convenient, and cheaper than the tailpipe testing now used in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas. However there is little data on the reliability of the results, and inspection stations will need new equipment and software, as well as training in their use.

The EIPRG was made up of representatives from the American Lung Association, Armstrong Wood Industries, Pennsylvania AAA Federation, Pennsylvania Automotive Association, Pennsylvania Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, the EPA, the DEP and PennDOT. Others were able to observe and have some input. Their report was finished in October 2001. Among its recommendations were:

1) That there be a pilot program in 2002 to allow for education of the public, testing and repair personnel and public officials; testing and demonstration of OBD equipment, including communications between inspection station equipment and the vehicle inspection information database; and collection of data.

2) Evaluation of pilot program data, with the help of the EIPRG.

3) Implementation of OBD testing in 17 counties, in three phases, in time for the ozone season in 2003.

4) The existing tailpipe emissions inspections for pre-1996 vehicles in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas should continue until fewer than 20% of vehicles in an area are pre-1996, so long as emissions meet air quality requirements, perhaps about 2009.

5) As the proportion of vehicles with OBD equipment increases it may be possible to meet air quality requirements with a biennial testing program rather than an annual one by 2005 to 2007.

The American Lung Association of Pennsylvania wished to see faster implementation of the programs.

Now PennDOT plans to run a pilot program this spring to familiarize the public and emission inspection test stations with the OBD emissions inspection and maintenance process and to provide data on the numbers of OBD-equipped vehicles in the state, as recommended by the EIPRG. Pilot program testing is to be voluntary and free to the participating drivers. PennDOT planned to start the program in March 2002 with two stations in each of 17 counties, Allegheny, Beaver, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Washington, Westmoreland and York. The loan of equipment has been solicited from equipment manufacturers.

Thus, the pilot program should already be under way, but there seems to have been little or no newspaper publicity, in contrast to the uproar generated by previous suggested changes in inspection policy back in the mid-90’s.

For more detailed information on automobile inspection and maintenance programs, go to