How to pretend to pass laws without actually doing so (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 18 Sep 2004

How to pretend to pass laws without actually doing so

(Write laws that don't apply for ten years, then revoke them.)

The news everyone in California seems to be talking about today is SB42, the bill to end the "rolling 30-year exemption" which never actually rolled. For instance, here's today's Chron Article on the subject.

What does this all mean? None of the newspaper stories actually tell you much about the law or its history.

There's a little information at a CA Senate site. Basically, cars older than 1973 are exempted from California's bi-annual smog checks. In 1997 or 1998, a "rolling 30-year window" was added, meaning that in 2004, 1974 cars would become exempt, in 2005, 1975 cars would, etc. (Note: I remember the rolling window being legislated much earlier than 1998, perhaps even a decade earlier. But I haven't yet been able to find anything on the web discussing legislation prior to 1997.)

Notice that the 30-year window never happened. It's been promised for quite some time (at least seven years, but maybe more than ten if I'm remembering correctly) but, frankly, anybody who believed it was really going to happen was dreaming. All the car buffs I know (including myself) had every expectation that the window would disappear before it ever came into effect.

And indeed, that's what's happening. Current bill SB42, from Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), which is on the governor's desk for signature or veto, would repeal the 30-year rolling window completely, and give the exemption to all cars through 1976 but no later cars, ever. (None of the stories discusses when this goes into effect: do the 1974 through 1976 cars immediately become exempt, or does this wait until 2006 when the 30-year window would have exempted them?)

Everybody is up in arms. Classic car buffs, who have been fondling their modified 1975 cars in gleeful anticipation of anticipated legality, are furious at the take-back. The Sierra Club is dancing for joy at getting sports cars off the road to make way for more gas-guzzling SUVs. Everybody is organizing letter-writing campaigns. Nobody, naturally, is providing any data.

The Chron article quotes the "staff researchers" for Lieber's office on projected numbers for the percentage of pollutants expected to be contributed by cars built before 1982. Curiously, when I look at the Sierra Club's "call to action" on this bill, I see almost the identical phrase quoted by the Chron. Nobody mentions who did this study, who calculated the numbers or what they're based on. Did Lieber's "staff researchers" merely lift propaganda from the Sierra Club? Or did they do actual research, which the Sierra club is now quoting but which no one seems to reference in any detail? Of course, the car enthusiast sites quote numbers which tell a very different story, also without attribution, so they're no more trustworthy.

I'd love to see a chart of total estimated pollutants by year, with the total number of cars of that year still on the road, from 1973 up through today. I'd also like to see a breakdown for the older cars into carburated and fuel injected, and a breakdown for recent cars into cars and SUVs/trucks. A breakdown by engine size might also be interesting.

I suspect it really is true that some subset of older cars is causing a disproportionate amount of pollution, and addressing that would be a good thing. Let's find out who the real offenders are, and address the real problem.

It's funny how laws involving cars or gasoline so often seem to be passed in this time-delayed way ... and then never actually take effect. A law is passed that will take effect seven or ten or fifteen years later, and nobody (except a few trusting individuals) pays it any attention because everyone knows perfectly well that such laws don't really mean anything.

Consider MTBE, the health-endangering gas additive. It's still in California gas, despite a law passed some five years ago supposedly banning it (with a time delay). Union 76 sells non-MTBE gas (and I buy their gas almost exclusively, for that reason) but no one else does, as far as I've been able to tell.

Consider the SUV exemption. SUVs and trucks don't have to meet the fleet economy standards that cars have to meet, or the emissions laws, or the safety requirements. Let me say that again: the biggest, gas-guzzlingest vehicles on the road, some of which get under 4 miles per gallon, don't have to meet the same emissions requirements as a Honda Civic. That, too, is covered by a current time-delayed law; and as with the MTBE law, I wish you good luck in finding out anything about the status of it. The automakers certainly aren't paying any attention; they know perfectly well that it will be thrown out before they actually have to redesign SUVs to comply.

Delayed-action laws are merely a convenient way of getting good press (or votes, or campaign contributions) without having to risk changing anything.

When you see a law with a delayed effect, be very suspicious.

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