The APA's report on Ontario's DriveClean Program - January 2000

APA Probe -- Critical of Ontario's DriveClean Emissions Testing Program

The Automobile Protection Association wrote Ontario Environment Minister Tony Clement today to request an overhaul of Drive Clean, the province's vehicle inspection and maintenance program. APA researchers visited 24 garages in Greater Toronto to study the impact of Ontario's Drive Clean. Drive Clean requires every motor vehicle in Greater Toronto and the Hamilton-Wentworth regions to be brought to a test facility every two years for an emissions test. The APA discovered that test variability was huge. The pollutants measured varied by up to 800% for the same car, often tested on the same day.

The APA test vehicle chosen at random from a used car dealer's lot was a 1988 Pontiac Sunbird with 139,000 km on the odometer. "This car is typical of an older vehicle driven by a consumer on a limited budget," said APA president George Iny. The APA test car passed the emissions test at 11 garages and failed at nine shops. The estimated cost of repairs ranged from $220 to $679. Four shops declined to test the car, claiming it had one or more mechanical defects that made it unsuitable for testing.

Repair fraud not an issue
Iny said, "The incidence of fraud was low - no more than 10%". One garage, a Midas shop in Mississauga, refused to hook up the car, claiming it was too dangerous and would need $679 in repairs. Two other shops turned it away because they spotted what they believed was a muffler leak, but didn't try to sell a repair.

The APA found little consensus among mechanics regarding the recommended repairs. The average estimate was a hefty $526, and the diagnoses varied enormously. Three garages identified the exhaust gas recirculation valve as the cause of high readings. Two recommended tune ups. Four recommended a catalytic converter. Two shops pinpointed the oxygen sensor, while another said it was good. The APA says the "success" rate of such wildly divergent repairs is certainly below Drive Clean's estimates.

A flawed concept
The APA discovered that events just prior to the visit to the Drive Clean centre had a large bearing on the results. A cold vehicle, even when warmed up (idling it at the garage), is much more likely to fail. The best results obtained on APA's test car occurred after an extended period of highway driving. According to the APA, the problem is that Drive Clean is a flawed concept. "You simply cannot obtain a high degree of correlation with on-road emissions from a two to four minute test in a garage," said Iny. Some cars that fail are "flippers", so-called because they generate highly variable results even on the same day for any number of reasons.

Cost primarily expended on unnecessary inspections
Drive Clean's own data show that overall, only 14% of vehicles, and virtually no newer vehicles, are failing the biannual test. The annual cost of inspecting just the clean cars covered under the program is 60 million dollars and produces no environmental benefit, since these cars are not polluting excessively. APA's investigation revealed that even among the 14% that do fail the emissions test, there are serious problems of consistency, cost and necessity of the recommended repair. The APA says that Drive Clean is crowding out alternative strategies that could deliver better results for less money. Iny said, "Drive Clean as it is currently designed is an ill-conceived and costly program that was misrepresented to Ontarians and will never deliver the promised 22% reduction in emissions."

Drive Clean overhaul
The APA wrote Environment Minister Tony Clement requesting that Drive Clean's biannual inspection be postponed for all cars newer than 1995 up to 8 years or 130,000 km . The newer cars already have an on-board diagnostic capability superior to Drive Clean's test. The APA stated that further expansion of the program should be halted while the program is reviewed by independent experts. The province should consider the disproportionate impact of Drive Clean on owners of older vehicles, once the $200 conditional pass exemption expires. Owners of these older vehicles will face a real burden after their exemptions expire beginning in April 2001.

Recommendations for the motorist
If your car fails an emissions test but otherwise appears to be in good working order, the APA recommends the best strategy may be to warm up the emissions system properly and test again before authorizing repairs. Fill the car up with fresh fuel and drive on the highway for half an hour or more. Pull in for the second test and do not wait more than fifteen minutes before running the car on a Drive Clean dynamometer.