Wasting Gas to Save the Planet

This afternoon found me spending my lunch break (or being non-hourly, a period of time in the middle of the day) driving in circles for no reason other than to save the planet.

You see, I have been so unsporting as to own a 1996 Toyota Camry, which despite looking a bit dirty gets great mileage and has 118k miles on it. Most people would think this was a keeper — except, it seems, my state’s environmental regulations. You see, 1996 was the first year during which the current type of ODB II emissions monitoring system was required, and the one on my car, being a first year out attempt, is rather flaky. It doesn’t help that my car was originally manufactured for the California market, which has it’s own totally unique set of emissions monitoring requirements, which don’t match the rest of the country and which Texas mechanics don’t seem to be very good with.

So while my car invariably passes the actual tailpipe test, it frequently has a check engine light on, which constitutes an automatic fail on our emissions test here in Texas. Over the years I’ve spent plenty of money (indeed, almost all the money that I’ve ever had to spend on care repairs) on getting the car to pass emissions, though last time around I learned that since I always pass the tailpipe emissions anyway, I can just reset the computer sixty miles before going in for my state inspection, and I’ll usually be fine.

Thus, I found myself this afternoon driving in circles to get up to sixty miles so I could get my inspection sticker (which was long overdue). A cop pulled me over and observed that my sticker was out of date. I told him that I was aware of this (MrsDarwin having been pulled over in my car last week for the same reason, thus spurring me to action to get things fixed) and was trying to get the requisite miles on the computer after working on it to be able to pass inspection. The officer helpfully advised me to go find a parking lot to rack up sixty miles driving in circles in so that I wouldn’t be violating the law on public road, but let me off with a warning.

So the car is now down getting inspected. Here’s hoping that 48 miles on the computer allowed enough tests to run for it to pass. But one can’t help being deeply cynical about the whole process. The bottom line I’ve got from various mechanics is: Your car is a 96. It’ll probably always be trouble on the check engine light. You can either drive it and deal with it each year, or sell it and get a newer one.

At the end of the day, I can’t help suspecting one of the real reasons for all our regulations in regards to cars is to make sure that the car inventory turns over often enough. The original motivation for the regulations was no doubt environmental, but by the time everyone got done touching it, things tinkered with enough to provide a healthy boost to consumer demand. Having driven my car 4,600 miles in the last 16 months (so the JiffyLube guy told me in wonder) I’m not exactly destroying the planet — but the government won’t rest until I shell out the money to buy a new car, which would probably involve more emissions to produce than driving my ’96 around for another decade.

12 Responses to Wasting Gas to Save the Planet

  1. paul zummo says:

    I think the Check Engine light exists solely to fatten the wallets of mechanics. In the history of the automobile, has the check engine light’s going on ever actually indicated an engine malfunction of any kind?

  2. John Henry says:

    In my experience, on older cars the check engine light is only good for indicating two things: 1) the battery is working; 2) the check engine light hasn’t burnt out.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Agreed Paul and John. I drove a car with the check engine light on for two years. I asked my mechanic about it and he shrugged his shoulders and said that I would be surprised at how often it comes on in vehicles for no apparent reason.

  4. Jay Anderson says:

    We’ve been driving our ’02 minivan with the check engine light on for over a year now. We made the mistake of taking it in for a diagnostic test at one point over a year ago. They found nothing wrong. Reset the computer so the light would turn off. Within a week it was back on again.

    Needless to say, after driving with the light on for roughly a year-and-a-half with no problems, it’s safe to say there’s nothing wrong with our engine apart from being almost 8 years old and having over 150,000 miles on it.

    Fortunately, in Ohio, you aren’t required to get an annual inspection.

  5. Rick Lugari says:

    This is just the sort of thing that makes my blood boil. And frankly, I’m surprised Texas is doing it. We had something similar in Wayne County, Michigan 10-20 years ago, but they finally repealed it. Predictably, it was ineffective, a waste of resources, and as with so many efforts and regulations that exist to sooth the malformed consciences of the left, the poor pay the price.

    Who isn’t going to be able to get their car licensed due to failing the inspection? The guy making 100k a year and leasing a 2009 Accord or the guy scraping by at 15k with his $500 1987 Impala? Is the latter even equipped to fork out a few hundred dollars on the gamble that a mechanic can tweak enough to make it pass? All for what? So the state can raise taxes for a “good reason” and without calling it a tax? So a particularly industry can benefit due to the state demanding people use their services? So the state can keep the working poor off the roads? Oh how I hate this kind of shit!

  6. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Bravo Rick. It is amazing how often proponents of more government regulation are completely oblivious to the impact of said regulation on the poor.

  7. First of all, I’m surprised by the idea of an emissions test for a inspection sticker (we call them brake tags in New Orleans; no idea why). All they do here is check the lights and horn and window tints. How does that even work? I would hope that the government bureaucrat would inhale the tailpipe to check the levels of CO2, but you probably aren’t that lucky 😉

    Second, these inspections are ludicrous. You get the luck of the draw with the inspector. My fiancee bought her car used, only to discover they had put on too dark window tint. She got passed twice, but now didn’t pass, and needs a doctor’s note that her eyes are sensitive to glare.

    Third, the check engine light is evil. When I was a new driver, I brought my car in when the check engine light came on to discover that the light came on b/c the 10,000 mile service hadn’t been done so they did it…except that the service HAD been done, and they just forgot to hit the reset button. Needless to say I will ignore it in the future.

  8. Paul says:

    Just a note. I am a mechanic. The check engine light does come on for legitimate reasons. Now, like every other system in the world there are the exceptions. However, most mechanics can turn wrenches but have no idea how to do electrical or computer diagnostics at any level of real competence. You really have to be a lucky person to actually find a good mechanic.
    I am glad that people can become mechanics with no college education. I think that there are a lot of careers that the college industry has hijacked with their “accreditations” and the automotive industry is one that has escaped the hands of academia. But there really is no way to differentiate a good mechanic from a bad one- this includes ASE certifications- other than the experience of dealing with that person.
    Just some thoughts.
    In all honesty it would prob. require a four year technology degree at a real college to get a firm grasp on automobiles. They are extremely complex machines, not what your father grew up with.
    Luckily you can find some people that do have degrees that are mechanics and, as in any industry, there are those that have a natural aptitude.
    Thank God I can work on my own vehicle- I save tons of cash and have that feeling of “that job was done right.” Any ways…

  9. Ray Fowler says:

    Yep, the check engine light is a mystery. I drive my wife’s 2002 Ford Escape. When the light came on a couple of years ago, I turned to the owner’s manual which recommended I run a tank or two of a better grade of gasoline from national distributor. Sure enough, the light went out. It then started coming on regardless of the brand of petrol and seemed to go out when it was tired of illuminating. The vehicle has since passed a California emissions test. It remains a mystery and possibly a clue to an impending malfunction, but it is now largely ignored.

  10. Elaine Krewer says:

    I drove a 1996 Ford Windstar van with a “check engine” light that stayed on continuously for two years. I never knew exactly what was causing it, and didn’t care as long as the thing ran. I never took it to a mechanic unless there was some other clear sign of trouble. It did finally crap out and end up in the junkyard at 220,000 miles, after 3 years (we bought it used) of driving it 100+ miles per day to a job 50 miles out of town!

    Don, I hear ya completely on the impact of things like emissions testing and other car-related stuff on the poor. Mandatory insurance laws, while well-intentioned, often make it virtually impossible for very poor people to own cars (and thereby be able to travel to jobs where they could earn more money) even if they do manage to scrape up the cash for a beater. Not to mention the costs of transferring titles and registrations.

    In Illinois we currently pay $78 per year for license plate stickers (this may go up to $98 soon if the pols have their way). Coming up with the bux for that has caused me significant hardship at times. In other states the cost of registration/plates/stickers is even higher.

    I too am surprised that the low-tax paradise of Texas requires this sort of thing. Maybe THAT’s one place they get the money that enables them to survive without an income tax?

  11. Gabriel Austin says:

    “It doesn’t help that my car was originally manufactured for the California market, which has its own totally unique set of emissions monitoring requirements, which don’t match the rest of the country… ”

    Is this why California is called La-la land?

  12. j. christian says:

    The check engine light recently came on in our 2003 Honda, and it was probably caused by a loose gas tank cap (according to the manual). It *did* have an effect on performance — the car didn’t accelerate properly when the light was on. Maybe this is an instance of the emissions system (computer?) limiting acceleration for some reason? I don’t know, but not until we stopped and tightened the cap did the light go off and the car accelerate properly.

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