Friday, June 4, 2010

Smog Check

California, land of automotive rituals, home of the smog check. Before the invention of the catalytic converter and cleaner fossil fuels, air pollution covered LA in a dusky blanket of impenetrable fumes that choked out the sky.

Brown became the new blue.

After thousands of stage 1 smog alerts and hundreds of "day-light dim outs" , hospitals filled with asthma patients and gas mask wearing commuters, California decided to incorporate the "smog check"; an emission test to ensure that vehicles no longer undermined public health.

Years of dogged regulations and shrew environmentalists have finally won the battle against smog. We no longer have pollution, but a "marine layer".

Gray is the new brown.

The price for clean air is a small bi-annual ritual: the smog check. Every other year vehicles must be inspected for emissions, tested to ensure that they are not "over-polluting" the atmosphere. Without a verified smog check, California will not allow motorists to buy license plate tags, all but guaranteeing fines from the state's legion of meter maids.

Parking violations is the one aspect of the state government that functions with optimal efficiency. If you put the meter maids in charge of finding Osama Bin Laden, they'd catch him, provided he was parked illegally.

Me being me, I forget all about my tags until after they've expired. I get a notice from the DMV stating I'm overdue, $120 for the car, $20 for a mysterious bonus tax, and another $112 fine for being late with an additional $10 processing fee. $262, plus I need a new smog check.


Fortunately I drive a Honda Civic, a car that excels at passing smog checks and extremely low emissions. I drive to a nearby smog center, wait patiently, playing video games on my iTouch as the mechanic hooks my car up to an emissions testing machine.

Catalytic Converter: Pass
Electrical Systems: Pass
Emissions: Pass
Maintenance Light: Fail

The mechanic apologizes. "I'm sorry, I thought your car would pass, but you have a maintenance light that's flashing on the dashboard."

"So?" I reply, trying to conceal my irritation. "It's been on for months. Probably just a short, the car is fine."

"I'm sorry, but I can't pass the car with that light on. The computer won't give your car a passing grade."

"The computer?"

"The computer checks the car, then it wires the state. If it finds anything wrong, it won't allow me to pass you."

"You are not going to certify my car because of a dash board light?"

"Bring it back tomorrow. Sometimes it goes away after you drive it for a couple days."

I swallow my anger, snarling as I restart the car. The maintenance light is not just going to go away, its been lit for two months.

Perhaps its a blown fuse? I drive the car home and check the fuse box under the hood, then the box under the driver's seat. There are dozens of fuses, but I have a fuse checker, a small hand held device that emits a green light if a fuse is operational.

The hood fuses are easy to check, but underneath the driver's seat it is cramped and difficult to manipulate the device to read the fuses. The fuse checker is an inch too long. It's like trying to screw in a nail in a three inch space with a four inch screw driver, the fuse checker just doesn't fit under the driver's seat. After several minutes of cursing, I stop, frustrated.

Harry calls, and I tell him what's happened.

"Peoples Republic of California." Harry responds, blowing smoke out a cigarette on the other end of the phone. "In Georgia we don't even have smog checks. My check engine light has been on for months. My guess: they probably just want you to bring the car into the dealership in order to change your spark plugs and oil, then charge you $600."

"Well I don't know how to fix it." I complain. "Anytime its electrical it can be expensive."

"This is just your socialist government trying to get more money out of you," Harry says, smoking. "It's just like the movie Casino, it's all about getting your money. This mechanic could have passed your car, but he isn't going to."

After a long bitch session I decide to search the world library for answers. The Internet, cornucopia of rumors, pornography, and useless information. I know I can't be the only owner of a Honda Civic who has ever had a maintenance light problem. After a minute I find an old discussion group thread, turns out hundreds, if not thousands of people have been in the exact same predicament.

Harry was right. The Honda Civic maintenance light is scheduled to flicker on every 10,000 miles in an effort to get owners to turn their car over to the dealer. There is also an easy way to shut it off: press in the travel odometer, turn the car to on, and hold the button in for twenty seconds. The light then switches off as it resets.

I go out to the car and try it. CLICK! The maintenance light vanishes.


The next day I take the car back, just as the mechanic is finishing up with a customer. I'm delighted I don't have to wait.

The mechanic informs me he's taking his lunch.

I smile and try not to get impatient. After fifteen minutes he re-hooks the car up to the emissions equipment and reruns all the tests. The car appears to have passed. Finally! I am now cleared to pay money that I don't want to pay to the government.

"I don't know if I should pass your car."

I blink. "What?"

"Something is not right, you need to take better care of it."

I look at the computer. The computer screen reads "passing" under the half dozen state mandated criteria. I glare at the mechanic, imagine his head blowing apart, spraying gibbets of brain matter and gore as pieces of cranium shattered bone scatter over the street beneath his formless gray hat.

He lasts five seconds before passing my vehicle.

Zoolander had a look called "Blue Steel". I have a glare called the Exorcist, a laser like beam of dark psychic energy, honed to deadly glower by years of unruly students.

Turns out the Exorcist is also good for difficult mechanics and officious bureaucrats. Who knew?

Thanks kids.

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