Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

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Thousands of cars in Clark County still pollute air through ‘classic’ car loophole

Classic Cars Illustration

Photo Illustration / Las Vegas Sun

During the 2015 legislative session, Nevada lawmakers identified a troubling trend: Owners of old cars labeled as “classic” vehicles were skirting smog tests and potentially exceeding mileage caps set by the state, with possible implications for air quality.

Four years later, the issue still hasn’t been addressed.

Under Nevada regulations for “classic” and similar vehicles, virtually any car older than 20 years can be registered with a classic license plate and thereby avoid a smog test, which are otherwise mandatory in Clark County. To do so, the driver must identify the year the car was manufactured and pay an initial fee of $37 and an annual fee of $10 to the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.

See something, say something

Anyone who sees a “smoking” older vehicle should report it to the DMV’s smog hotline at 702-642-SMOG, or visit smogspotter.com. No cars are allowed to emit smoke in Nevada. When members of the general public report a smoking car to the DMV, the owner is sent an advisory letter requesting that he or she get the car fixed. If a car is reported by a DMV employee or police officer, the DMV will require the driver to come in for a smog test, classic or not.

“Those are the only qualifications for it,” DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said.

Nevada offers three types of classic vehicle license plates: “Classic Rods” are between 20 and 70 years old, “Classic Vehicles” are more than 25 years old and have not been customized, and “Old Timers” are more than 40 years old.

Classic Car Club of America defines classic cars as automobiles of quality and distinction built between 1915 and 1948. Nevada, however, doesn’t require its classic vehicles to be unusual or noteworthy.

“I think we’ve all seen it where you’re driving down the road, and you’ll see a car with a classic plate that is not normally what you think of as a classic vehicle,” said Kevin MacDonald, a spokesman for the Clark County Department of Air Quality.

Because older cars tend to pollute more, Nevada law dictates that classic and old-timer cars not be driven more than 5,000 miles per year. But the DMV isn’t required to verify the odometer readings drivers report to the agency each year, making the mileage limit virtually unenforceable.

“It is basically an honor system. We don’t really know what your odometer reads,” Malone said.

Recognizing this loophole in the program, lawmakers in 2015 passed Assembly Bill 146, which called on the state’s Advisory Committee on the Control of Emissions to study how Nevada inspects motor vehicles and controls emissions. The committee included representatives from the Clark County Department of Air Quality, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and other state and local agencies.

It found that existing law lets older, polluting cars off the hook.

Cars built before the 1990s have less sophisticated catalytic converters for controlling carbon monoxide emissions compared with modern cars. Older cars also produce more volatile organic chemicals and nitrogen oxide, harmful pollutants that are the precursors to ozone. A 1990 model-year vehicle, for example, can produce between 9.1 and 18.3 times more of those emissions than a 2015 model-year vehicle, the report states.

Clark County has some of the highest concentrations of ground-level ozone in the country, according to a 2018 study by the American Lung Association. Expanding smog checks and enforcing mileage limits on classic cars would be one way to reduce those concentrations.

“It’s one more measure we can take to keep the air we share cleaner,” MacDonald said.

The advisory committee advised the Legislature in 2016 to close the classic car loophole, MacDonald noted, which never happened. All the while, the number of registered classic cars in Clark County has risen dramatically since 2011, the year that the Legislature loosened rules for these cars, DMV data shows.

In 2011, there were just under 5,000 classic vehicles and classic rods in Clark County. The number doubled in 2012 after the current rules went into effect and has continued to increase. As of last year, there were 25,598 registered classic cars and classic rods in Clark County, out of more than 1.6 million registered vehicles.

A brief history of Nevada’s classic car program

Nevada’s classic car program dates back to 1997, when the state established the concept of “restored” vehicles. These vehicles were exempt from smog tests so long as they did not emit smoke, passed an initial emissions test and had not been driven more than 2,500 miles in the past year.

The Legislature did away with the restored vehicle program in 2011 and removed requirements for classic vehicles to pass one-time emissions tests. Lawmakers also increased the annual driving limit from 2,500 miles to 5,000 miles and kept the smog test exemption.

“In comparison to the more narrowly defined and detailed exemption requirements for special license-plated vehicles in surrounding states, what remained in Nevada was an older vehicle exemption program with far less constraint,” the advisory committee wrote.

One lawmaker tried to change the rules in 2017. State Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Clark, proposed a bill that, among other measures, would have required owners of classic cars to provide a verifiable odometer reading to the DMV showing that the car hadn’t been driven more than 5,000 miles per year.

“My intent really is to clean up this program we have and also get the worst violators off the road that are polluting our air,” Hammond said during a March 9, 2017, Senate Committee on Transportation hearing.

But the bill never made it for a vote and died after failing to meet the April 15 legislative deadline, legislative records show. In 2019, no similar changes were proposed throughout the legislative session.

Given that the Legislature passed other environmental measures this session, such as funding electric school buses and increasing the state's renewable energy portfolio standards, it is unclear why no changes to the classic car program were suggested.

Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, said the environmental organization is aware of the smog test exemption for classic cars. However, the Nevada Conservation League was more focused this session on measures to reduce tailpipe emissions from all gas-powered vehicles.

“For us, our focus has really been on how do we ramp up the adoption of non-fossil fuel-powered cars and electrified transportation, and also create more [transportation] choices for people across the state,” Maggi said.

MacDonald acknowledged that older cars aren’t the only ones contributing to the Valley’s relatively high ozone levels and that all drivers should be thinking about reducing their driving. Nonetheless, he hopes the state will beef up enforcement of classic vehicles to stop potential abuse of the program.

“We need the state Legislature to take this up,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.