Ontario's Drive Clean

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Ontario's Drive Clean is an automobile emissions control program in Ontario, Canada. The program came into being in 1999 under the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, led by Premier Mike Harris. The current PC party leader, Tim Hudak was a Cabinet Minister at the time, and voted in favour of the program. It applies only to vehicles in the program coverage areas, which are largely the lower half of Ontario, from Windsor in Southwestern Ontario to Ottawa in Eastern Ontario. It is unlikely it will be expanded to cover all of Ontario.[citation needed] It is administered by Parson's Protect Air, through Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) and the Ministry of Transportation (MTO). The actual testing is carried out by privately owned and operated automotive shops, under contract to MOECC.

Originally, vehicles under 4,500 kg (cars, SUV, light trucks) and over three years old (and up to the 19th year) required an emission test every two years before the vehicle's owner or lessor can renew its licence plate. Starting with 2006, the test exemption was increased to five years, while the rolling exemption at 20 years ended, and all 1987 and older vehicles became exempt.[1]

Heavy duty trucks and buses are also covered by Drive Clean program. They are tested annually once the vehicle is more than one year old, with no age limit to testing; A 1975 diesel powered truck or bus would still be tested so long as it was still registered. All vehicles on Ontario roads are further monitored by a 'smog patrol' team for MOECC and can be stopped at random and roadside tested. The Smog Patrol team drive vehicles that are equipped with mobile testing equipment to perform roadside tests. The Smog Patrol can also perform a visual inspection to ensure all emissions control equipment is in place and functioning as originally built (tampering with or removing this equipment is an offence separate from Drive Clean but under the same Regulation). Some registrants circumvent an emissions test by registering their vehicles to addresses outside the Drive Clean testing areas. Circumventing an emissions test in this way is an offence and could result in a ticket or summons and could also result in licence plates being seized.

Smog Patrol Officers can also issue a Notice that requires a driver to take a vehicle for a Drive Clean test within a specific time period. Failure to comply with this Notice can also result in a serious fine, summons and/or plate seizure.

Coverage area[edit]

The current coverage area for Drive Clean:

  • Greater Toronto/Hamilton since 1999
  • Southwestern Ontario - Windsor to Niagara since 2001
  • Eastern Ontario - Ottawa to Peterborough since 2002
  • Heavy Duty vehicles - The entire province since 1999

Changing standards[edit]

The Drive Clean program has undergone several changes since its introduction in 1999 under then Ontario Premier Mike Harris. In 2003, standards for light-duty vehicles were tightened to require 11.5% lower vehicle emissions than the most stringent American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended standards. On November 18, 2005, the then Minister of the Environment, Laurel Broten, announced several proposed changes to the Drive Clean program.[2] Standards were tightened by a further 11.5%. Newer vehicles, which have a very high pass rate due to better emission control technology off the assembly line, were exempted from the program until they are five years old. At the other end of the age spectrum, the exemption for vehicles 20 years old and older was phased out. Vehicles built in 1988 and afterwards would have "fallen out" of the program after 19 years (for instance, a 1988 vehicle would no longer need testing after 2007). As a result of this change, such vehicles must continue to be tested every two years as long as they are on the road. Vehicles built in 1987 or before have now left the program permanently.

Critics accused the cash-strapped Dalton McGuinty government, which came into power in 2003 allegedly facing a 5.6 billion dollar deficit, of expanding Drive Clean for budgetary reasons rather than environmental protection.[3][4][5] Ontario had already invested in expensive testing machines, and due to their recent purchase (1998–99) these will not be paid off until about 2014.[1] Concurrent emissions technology improvements rendered the test machines obsolete, leading many observers to assume that Drive Clean's days were numbered. The program was, however, reformed on November 18, 2005. Revisions to the program were made, in particular the introduction of annual testing and the removal of the 20-year-exemption.[6]

Test accuracy[edit]

Drive Clean's emissions test results have been shown to be unreliable in surveys carried out by the media such as in-depth work done by The Hamilton Spectator,[7] the Fraser Institute,[8] and consumer advocacy groups such as the Automobile Protection Association. In APA surveys, it was shown that the same car can have extremely variable results in test results (up to 800 percent in one survey), even at the same garage or on the same day with no work being carried out on the car.[9] In 2004, the Ontario Auditor General reported on myriad cases of fraud within the Drive Clean program,[10] such as test facilities (garages) that, for a fee, would test a clean car and report those results instead. Other test facilities would fail a well-tuned car to generate additional work. For these reasons and others, consumer reports suggest drivers try another garage if their car fails a Drive Clean test, before proceeding with expensive repairs.

Equity concerns[edit]

Ontario's Drive Clean program provides no financial assistance to low-income drivers. This contrasts with otherwise similar mandatory emissions testing programs such as those in California, Texas and Arizona.[1] Critics of Drive Clean, including the province's own consulting firm, the Eastern Research Group, have strongly recommended that financial assistance should be provided.[1] The repair cost limit is about to triple since the program's inception (from $200 to $450, and a proposed $600 RCL[1]) while emissions standards have simultaneously become 23% more stringent leading to a greater percentage of vehicles that fail emissions tests. The social welfare effect is similar to that of a regressive tax, one imposed on drivers who cannot afford newer cars.[11][12] In 2006, some unofficial current estimates put the total cost of the program to Ontario motorists close to 2 billion dollars.[12] The most recent verifiable figure, $1.1 billion (in 2004), consists of some $435 million in Drive Clean test fees, and about $690 million for repairs to vehicles that failed.[13] Costs for preliminary repairs to vehicles in order to qualify for Drive Clean tests have never been included in these figures, such as repair or replacement of corroded exhaust system components. Drive Clean test facilities are free to refuse to test any vehicle until such preliminary repairs are made.

The Ontario government also has a program to purchase and scrap old polluting cars called Car Heaven. This program is sponsored by General Motors and Exxon-Mobil among others.[14] It is structured in a way which will cost taxpayers little, and acts as a small incentive for people to scrap older cars. This has the effect of boosting prices for remaining used cars by reducing supply, making it somewhat more expensive for low-income persons to drive in Ontario. Currently,[when?] the average car donation to Car Heaven is 16 years old (model year 1990-1991). The typical vehicle donated to Car Heaven would otherwise have been on the road for three more years.[15]

On October 29, 2007, Laurel Broten was replaced as Ontario's Minister of the Environment in a post-election cabinet shuffle. Broten had become the subject of controversy when her neighbours complained about her application to build a two storey multi-car garage with an elevator at her house for her and her husband's four automobiles: a hybrid Ford SUV, a Volvo SUV and two sports cars - a Mercedes and a Porsche.[16] Dubbed the "garage Mahal", the incident led to her political judgment being questioned.[17]

Impacts on air pollution[edit]

Drive Clean's impact on air pollution in Ontario has been contested. Since its creation in 1999 the Ontario Medical Association and the Canadian Medical Association have each released estimates of the number of illnesses caused by air pollution in Ontario. The Ontario Medical Association estimated in 2005 that total air pollution (from all sources) would cause some 5,800 deaths and 17,000 hospital admissions that year. It also estimated that the direct health care costs of air pollution in Ontario were about $507 million, and the total economic cost of air pollution to be about $7.8 billion.[18] However, three years later the Canadian Medical Association released a report that estimated that in 2008 there would be 4,597 hospital admissions in Ontario caused by air pollution, of which around 1,178 would result in acute premature death. It also suggested that in the year 2031 there would be 2,222 deaths in Ontario caused by air pollution, compared to 7,774 hospital admissions.[19] In addition, the number of smog advisory days in Ontario peaked in 2005 at 53 days. In 2013, there were only two smog advisory days in Ontario.[20]

In late 2004, Norm Sterling, who was the Environment Minister in the Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris's cabinet, stated that Drive Clean had already had its greatest impact on air pollution and had served its purpose.[21] Sterling is often referred to as the founder of Drive Clean. Drive Clean can only address a small fraction of the total automobile emissions problem, because all internal combustion vehicles burn fuels which ultimately pollute the air (including most so-called "alternative" fuels).

The Greenpeace co-founder, Robert Hunter, wrote in 1999 that Drive Clean "has turned out to be an agonizing bureaucratic nightmare that hits drivers with what is basically another tax and a huge hassle, while accomplishing -- in Environmental Commissioner Eva Ligeti's assessment -- 'minimal benefits.'"[22]

Critics of Drive Clean, who included Hunter and many other environmentalists[who?] argue that a greater long-term impact on overall air quality would result from reinvesting the same provincial resources towards encouraging low-emitter technologies, some of which offer electric power as an alternative to 100% internal combustion propulsion.[12][21][23] There has been a call for the Ontario government to admit to Drive Clean's minimal impact, and to begin promoting low-emissions vehicles such as hybrid cars, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, zero-emission vehicles such as the ill-fated General Motors EV1, and personal transports like the Segway PT.[citation needed] Unlike over 40 U.S. states, the Ontario government has banned low-speed electric vehicles citing "safety concerns".[24] On March 23, 2006, Ontario's McGuinty government doubled their former $1,000 ceiling sales tax rebate on hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius up to a maximum of $2,000, but stopped short of making such vehicles PST-free.

Politicians Norm Sterling and Howard Hampton have argued that diverting the same provincial funds used for paying for Drive Clean towards improving existing public transit networks might have yielded a far greater overall environmental benefit. Proper funding may have also acted to reduce the well-documented disproportional fare increases seen in Toronto from the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) in recent years. The TTC has argued in the past that with riders covering more than 80 per cent of the cost of operating the TTC, it is by far the least-funded mass transit system in North America and one of the least-funded in the world.[25] Another lost opportunity to reduce smog was the quiet shut-down of the Hamilton Street Railway's all-electric trolleybus routes in 1992.[26] The Ontario government has however invested toward expanding public transit in Ontario. It agreed to fund a variety of transit projects under The Big Move.

The future of Drive Clean[edit]

On June 7, 2010, the Ministry of Environment posted a request for proposals on MERX Canadian Public Tenders service. The modernized Drive Clean program, which was fully implemented on January 1, 2013, is intended to provide significant benefits by implementing OBD2 testing. Since January 1, 2013, the OBD2 testing has led to an average of 10% failure rate.[27]

See also[edit]


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