At the three-lane vehicle emissions inspection station in Calvert County last week, Dennis Noonan rounded a tree-lined corner and headed straight for the dynamometer test.
Unlike drivers in more urban areas, he watched with few concerns as an attendant put his sport utility vehicle on a treadmill and revved it up to 55 miles per hour.
For Noonan, the choice between a less accurate tailpipe test and a more advanced dynamometer test that catches more pollutants was pretty painless.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said. “I read the material, and it said this was more thorough. I’m environmentally conscious, and I wanted to make sure I got the best test.”
A proposal to change the dynamometer from a voluntary to a mandatory test is frequently touted as among the most unpopular before the Legislature this year.
But the numbers show that acceptance of the test among drivers is growing and largely depends on where people live.
Currently, the percentages of people who volunteer for the dynamometer test vary widely — from 15 percent in Baltimore to 83 percent in Calvert County.
In an ironic twist, areas with the worst air quality have the lowest rates of people who voluntarily subject their cars to the dynamometer.
“I’m not throwing stones here,” said Del. Ronald Guns, D- Cecil, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, in a hearing on the issue last week. “But out of 15 people in Baltimore City complaining about the quality of their air, only one is going to get this test.”
Officials believe that residents of areas with more polluted air, who have submitted their cars to the older tailpipe test since 1984, are more comfortable with that test.
Car owners at a Baltimore testing site last week cited a variety of reasons for avoiding the dynamometer. Many had heard word-of-mouth criticisms of the program. Some had been warned by their mechanics that test could damage their cars. Others felt the state had spent too much money on the new dynamometer equipment.
“If the tailpipe test has been good enough all these years, why do we need this thing now?” asked Baltimore resident Ron Koehler.
Making the dynamometer test mandatory by June is part of a plan, endorsed by the governor and the Department of Environment, to bring Maryland counties into compliance with the Clean Air Act.
But many legislators say their constituents hate the dynamometer test because it is too intrusive. Some want more research. Some want to keep the test voluntary. Others favor postponing the mandatory deadline beyond June until more popular support can be built.
Even so, in some parts of the state, the dynamometer test is actually preferred. More rural counties like Calvert, Washington, Queen Anne’s and Frederick have high rates of people who volunteer for the test.
Counties that began testing in 1995, which offered the dynamometer as an option from the beginning, have been fairly successful in promoting it.
“The new places have no history,” said Caryn Coyle, an air and radiation management administrator with the Department of Environment. “The old ones don’t want to try something new.”
In Calvert County, which has the highest volunteer rate, cars quickly zipped through the dynamometer test on a recent weekday. Drivers were unconcerned about the battle brewing in Annapolis.
They had few qualms about handing their keys over to attendants or worries that their cars would fail the test. In fact, some thought the test would help identify problems that might save them money down the road.
“Whichever test is the most accurate is the one I’d like to see done,” said Larry Smith, of Dunkirk.
Across Maryland, the number of dynamometer volunteers has increased dramatically since the state started offering a $2 coupon for the test. In April, just three percent volunteered. By December, that had climbed to 43 percent, according to the Motor Vehicle Administration.
An independent survey conducted in December found that 82 percent of people who took the dynamometer test were satisfied with the process. Only 70 percent who took the tailpipe test were satisfied.
Legislators will be looking closely at these numbers as they consider whether the public will accept a mandatory dynamometer test. Bills to keep the test voluntary or extend the deadline have strong support.
“What we do must fit in with the political reality of America. And we ain’t there yet,” said Guns. -30-