Car Owners In Uproar Over Emissions Testing, ‘Clunker’ Programs

Published July 1, 1997

An auto emissions law signed by New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman in June 1995 has had state officials, including Gov. Whitman, running for cover, as outraged motorists begin to realize what nuisances are in store for them in the name of environmental protection. The law provides for a centralized emissions inspection regime explicitly designed to fail most cars over four years old, after which they may be denied registration and confiscated by the state.

The law, and the backlash it has unleashed, can be traced to the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which put states under tremendous pressure to comply with new air quality standards. That has forced states to look for easy targets. Large corporations can band together and form powerful pressure groups capable of delaying or modifying regulations aimed at them. Not so individual car owners. With this simple power equation in mind, New Jersey developed a scheme to get “clunkers” off the road. By EPA’s own estimation, up to 60 percent of cars four years old or older will flunk New Jersey’s inspection test.

Drivers failing the test but who don’t have the money at hand to make the necessary repairs don’t have the option of keeping their unregistered cars in their driveways because they are considered quasi-public areas in New Jersey. This, according to Eric Peters, writing in the Wall Street Journal last year, means the state may ticket, impound, or even confiscate your unregistered car or truck — without compensation.”

The law has serious implications for those who keep and restore antique cars. New Jersey officials argue that historic or collector cars more than 25 years old are exempt from the law, but, as Peters notes, “it is the state bureaucracy that will define what qualifies as an historic or collectible car.”

The backlash was inevitable and has given rise to the “Flyer,” an anonymous pamphlet first passed around New Jersey and now circulating nationwide. The Flyer says New Jersey’s law is aimed at “TAKING YOUR CAR OFF THE ROAD. It is aimed at producing one-car families. Collector, hot rod, and hobbyist cars are history.” “The classic Mustang convertible has been redefined ‘a gross polluter’ and is now targeted by the state for the crusher.” the Flyer goes on.

“The issue here is ever-increasing government controlling not only your mobility, your life and your freedom, but even your ability to work and earn a living. It has almost nothing to do with clean air,” the Flyer states. The Flyer has received such widespread circulation and publicity that state officials have issued press release denying its veracity. Still, state officials, led by Gov. Whitman, found it necessary to assure a skeptical public that the new law would be enforced with “modifications,” stressing that a “demonstration project” created to fine tune the inspection program would be strictly “voluntary” in nature.