WASHINGTON – Better not drive that 1991 Chrysler LeBaron to Waldorf for an emissions test: That’s practically begging to fail.
But take a 1999 Toyota Camry, Dodge Caravan or Jeep Cherokee to any station in the state without worry. They passed every inspection in 2001, the most recent year for which Maryland has data available.
A Capital News Service analysis of 914,000 vehicle emissions inspections in Maryland in 2001 found that the 1991 LeBaron was the most likely to fail among car models that were tested more than 100 times. It posted a failure rate of 61.19 percent.
The analysis also showed that state inspection stations in Waldorf and Clinton were more likely to fail a vehicle — with failure rates of about 11 percent of tests — while cars tested at Gaithersburg failed just 6.5 percent of the time.
Kathleen Field, a public health engineer for Maryland Department of the Environment’s mobile sources division, said there is no difference in inspection station equipment or training that can explain the different failure rates.
But she and others, including several mechanics around the state, suspect the difference is likely attributable to the age and upkeep of the cars in various parts of the state.
“In Gaithersburg, you have a much more upscale demographic, while in Southern Maryland you have a less affluent population and more of an older- vehicle population,” said Mark Tapscott, the director of media services with the Heritage Foundation, who has also written about cars for the past 15 years.
Tapscott said that age and maintenance are the most important factors in predicting whether a vehicle will pass the emission test, which examines levels of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide.
Jason Keplinger, a mechanic at Keplinger’s Automotive Center in Hagerstown, agreed that age and upkeep are major factors.
“The newer the car the cleaner the car, the less likely they are to break as far as emissions-related failures,” said Keplinger, who gets five to 10 customers a week whose cars have failed emissions tests.
The records support their reasoning: The inspections database shows that cars that went to the Gaithersburg inspection station were an average of seven months newer than those tested in Waldorf.
But vehicle age alone does not explain failure rates: Cars tested at the Hagerstown station were an average of a year older than those in Gaithersburg, while the Owings Mills station had the lowest average age of cars tested.
Some models just fail more often than others, regardless of their age.
The 1991 LeBaron, like the 1991 Plymouth Arrow and 1984 Cadillac DeVille, failed about 60 percent of their emissions tests in 2001. In the same year, 1984 Toyota Camrys and Corollas only failed about 15 percent of the time.
In fact, the 17-year-old Camrys were almost as likely to pass in 2001 as 3-year-old Ford Crown Victorias. Each passed about 85 percent of the time. Those model years are not anomalies: Toyota Camrys taken as a whole were 5.6 times more likely to pass than Crown Victorias.
Honda Accords were almost as reliable, passing about 96 percent of inspections for all model years.
“The Camry and the Accord are just well-made automobiles. They’ve got it down,” said John Littrell, 47, owner of the Car Care Center of Gaithersburg. He said that dirty throttle plates, bad oxygen sensors and clogged air filters are three of the most-common causes of emissions problems that he sees.
There were also wide variances within manufacturers. Pontiac’s Sunfire passed 32.5 times more frequently than that manufacturers’ Firebird. Chrysler LeBarons were almost 90 times more likely to fail than Chrysler Sebrings. Firebirds and LeBarons both flunked about 20 percent of the time.
But some manufacturers fared better than others altogether. Hondas, Toyotas, Saabs and Subarus failed fewer than one test in 20, while Audis, Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benzes failed nearly one test in five.
Owners of vehicles that fail inspection have two options if they do not want to lose their vehicle’s registration, said Field.
“You either repair it or do enough repairs to meet our waiver requirement,” Field said.
The waiver requirement is currently $450, Field said.