WASHINGTON – The number of light-duty trucks, which includes most sport utility vehicles, has jumped by 224 percent in Maryland over the last 12 years, leaving officials scrambling to fix pollution problems caused by the unforeseen popularity of the vehicles.
“There’s not a whole lot that we can do in regulating the emissions from them,” Marcia Ways, chief of the Engineering Division for Maryland Department of the Environment.
When SUVs first hit the market, the Environmental Protection Agency assumed they only would be used for “specialized reasons” and so placed them in a less-stringent vehicle emissions category. They were mostly categorized as light-duty trucks, which also includes minivans and pickup trucks.
Planners had no idea that SUVs would be so wildly popular or that they would often end up acting as the family car, which has stricter pollution controls.
When it became obvious that SUVs would be generating much more pollution than planners had expected, it was too late. Officials had no way to counteract their high emissions levels, said David Filbert, the chief of MDE’s Inspection Maintenance Division, and an attempt to do so was defeated in court.
“We can’t prevent people from buying these SUVs,” he said.
Since 1990, passenger vehicles on Maryland roads have increased by 4 percent, while the number of light-duty trucks has grown at 56 times that rate.
“I don’t think anybody expected they (SUVs) would take off the way they did in terms of sales,” Filbert said.
Ways said sales really took off after 1996, when the vehicles became an affordable luxury. The booming economy, low gasoline prices and the safe feeling that the enormous vehicles give their drivers are what ignited the SUV craze, she said.
“If people are making more and have a more expendable income, they’re going to pamper themselves more,” Ways said.
In an effort to combat SUV-generated pollution, Maryland looked toward California’s advanced emissions laws in the late 1990s and tried to introduce similar standards. The standards would have forced manufacturers to lower emissions for light-duty trucks in the Northeast.
But Virginia sued and the rule was overturned, Ways said. The best Maryland could do was work out an agreement with manufacturers to voluntarily reduce emissions in SUVs sold in the region after 1999, she said.
Ways said that, because of its small size and the number of commuters who cross the state line every day, Maryland needs the support of surrounding states to make any emissions-reduction program work.
She said Maryland has also looked at a new California law that limits emissions of greenhouse gases from all passenger vehicles, but conceded that “just right now the interest isn’t going to be there” in surrounding states to adopt such a plan. Besides, the possible economic impact it could have on manufacturers and the problems it could cause for consumers would be too much of a headache, she said.
But SUV supporters said Maryland regulators should not be pointing a finger at them when it comes to pollution.
Today’s SUVs are more likely to comply with the same emissions standards as passenger vehicles, said Diane Steed, president of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice.
And SUVs have other advantages, Steed said. They are safer and have a better towing capacity than passenger cars, and “people should be able to buy and want the vehicles they need.”
But air pollution remains a major public health problem and Ways said it is clear that the voluntary program established after 1999 simply was not enough. More regulations are needed, she said.
For now, the state is looking toward an EPA rule that goes into effect in two years. Beginning in 2004, the “Tier 2” regulation will force manufacturers of light trucks that weigh 8,500 pounds or less to produce vehicles that satisfy the same emissions standards as passenger cars.
Ways said the new regulation would cover “about 90 percent of your (sport utility) vehicles.”
Even then, Ways estimates that it will take another five to seven years before all the vehicles currently on the road will be replaced by SUVs that meet the new standard. But, she said, “in the long run it will really reduce emissions.”