An Update on Automobile Emissions Inspections in Pennsylvania

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Hotline, Summer 2001

by Beth Toor, GASP Board Member

The Current Program:

Since October 1997 automobiles in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions have been required to undergo an annual air pollution test in which a sensor is inserted in the tailpipe of the running car. These tests are carried out at local service stations, garages or car dealers which have been certified to do inspections, at the same time as the annual safety inspection. Less stringent tests had been required for vehicles in the Leigh Valley, but in 1999 the state suspended the program while pollution-cutting alternatives were studied. In 2000, the study group recommended that tests similar to those in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions be used, but the plan has not been implemented. A group of counties in south central Pennsylvania had also gone through the stakeholder process and planned to institute tailpipe testing to reduce ozone formation. Emissions testing is one of the strategies to reduce ozone emissions in various regions of the state, included in the State Implementation Plan approved by the EPA.

In the four-county southwestern region (Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland Counties) only an idle test inspection is used, while in the five-county southeastern region (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties) the idle test is used on 1975-1980 cars and 1975-1983 light trucks but a more sensitive dynamometer test is used on newer vehicles. In both regions, cars which fail the emissions tests can get a free re-inspection after repairs, and usually the car can get a one-year waiver if at least $150 has been spent on emissions-related repairs. The costs of tests and repairs are set by the garage doing them.

New Technology to be Studied:

In January of this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that they planned to form an Emission Inspection Policy Review Group to consider the impact of newer technology on the plans for expanding emissions inspection to the south-central counties, in particular the potential use of onboard diagnostics (OBD) rather than tailpipe tests. All vehicles built since 1996 have OBD technology which allows the vehicle’s computer to be connected to inspection equipment which can determine whether the engine is burning fuel cleanly. This method of testing is quicker and cheaper than tailpipe testing, but there seems to be little data as yet on how reliable the results are. PennDOT and the DEP planned to delay implementing emissions inspections in south-central Pennsylvania until the Policy Review Group reported to them, but anticipated no changes in the tailpipe testing in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions in the near future, since those programs are currently very successful in improving air quality.

The Legislature Gets Into the Act:

In February, the State Senate unanimously approved an amendment requiring PennDOT to set up an Emissions Policy Review Group whose findings must be reported to the General Assembly six months after the EPA establishes its final rule on OBD, but no later than March 31, 2002. The current inspection program would be suspended if PennDOT fails to issue the report or fails to implement OBD uniformly in all areas of the state required to have an auto emissions program by the Federal Government.

Then in March, the House Transportation Committee drew up a similar amendment, now known as HB 1094, which would require implementation of an OBD program for all 1996 and newer vehicles in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions by March 1, 2002. PennDOT would also be required to report annually on the percentage of pre-1996 vehicles in those nine counties, and once no more than 40% were pre-1996, the tailpipe inspection of these older vehicles would become biennial rather than annual. When the number of older vehicles dropped to 20% of the total, the current inspection program would be completely suspended.

It’s not clear why the general assembly wanted to have a policy review group, since they were already mandating changes the group was expected to study and evaluate. Those mandated changes included changes to strategies in the State Implementation Plan (SIP) for Air Quality, and would need U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval.

The Vehicle Inspection/Maintenance Policy Review Group: The I & M Review Group was formed in April, 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 may observe the meetings and may be asked for input by the group.

The first meeting was held in Harrisburg on April 24, and the EPA representative clarified that OBD adoption is allowed for in federal regulations and the approved SIP. If the federal regulations are adopted without changes, no SIP revision would be necessary. If changes are made, like going to biennial inspections, then a SIP revision would be needed.

A second meeting was held on May 21 & 22. PennDOT presented a proposed schedule for the restructuring of the I & M program:

March 2002

– Substitute OBD testing for tailpipe testing for 1996 and later vehicles in the Pittsburgh region, retaining tailpipe testing for older cars;

– Start OBD testing for 1996 and later vehicles in Lehigh and Northampton Counties.

July 2002

– Start OBD testing for 1996 and later vehicles in Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon and York Counties.

December 2002

– Substitute OBD testing for tailpipe testing for 1996 and later vehicles in the Philadelphia area while retaining tailpipe testing for older vehicles. Tailpipe testing would be gradually phased out as older cars become a smaller part of the total.

Two more meetings of the review group are planned for June 26 and 27 and July 16 and 17 in Harrisburg.

Current Status of HB1094:

An informal group of health and environmental groups (including the American Lung Association, Penn Future, the Sierra Club, GASP, and the Clean Air Council) have been exchanging information and finding sponsors for amendments to HB 1094. About 24 amendments have been offered, including several this group has written. One ally in stopping the phase-out of tailpipe tests is the gas station owners who have invested sizable amounts in test equipment, and don’t want to switch to new equipment for OBD tests.

At this time, (June 6) no action has occurred, but HB1094 is ready for the final vote. The legislature will be meeting June 11-13 and possibly later in June before breaking until September. There is still time to contact your state representative and ask him/her to support these amendments to HB 1094:

1) Have Onboard Diagnostic testing (OBD II), a proposed alternative to the tailpipe emissions test that can work with 1996 and newer cars, apply to the whole state–not just unfairly and less effectively to the Pgh and Philly regions. (A1905, sponsored by Rep. Stetler)

2) Waive registration fees for new, ultra low emission vehicles. (A1906, Rep. Wansacz).

3) Require the Commonwealth of PA to purchase ultra clean, efficient vehicles for its fleet. (A11907 A1908, Rep. Freeman).

4) Require that older (pre-1996) vehicles, which are by far the most polluting, still have tailpipe emissions tests. (A1909, Rep. Steil).

To find out who your state representative is and how to contact them, go to

To read Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles on this topic, go to and

To read about the I & M Policy Review Group and the state I & M program go to