Channel 2 Investigates

96% of cars pass emissions tests – so are they even necessary anymore?

ATLANTA — If you looked at Atlanta’s skyline recently you may have noticed something missing -- smog.

Despite a population increase of more than 800,000 to our area over the last 10 years, air pollution has greatly improved. Some are now questioning if we still need to do vehicle emissions tests if the air is so clean.

Channel 2's Sophia Choi started investigating and learned the tests may go away.

From 1990 to 2017, the amount of smog in our air went down 69 percent, according to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.

With this kind of trend, the state's environmental experts believe in three years, we could consider saying goodbye to emissions tests. Others ask, why wait? Get rid of them now.

Choi went to Midtown Emissions on Hemphill Avenue. Workers there told her as of lunchtime that day, they did about 30 emissions tests and not a single one of those cars failed.


Owner Charles McClellan said he is not surprised fewer cars are failing with so many newer, cleaner models on our roads.

"Some days it's as high as four or five, but generally, a couple," McClellan said about the number of cars that fail.

Channel 2 Action News dug through the data and found only 4 percent of models from 2010 on failed smog tests.

Benita Dodd from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation says it's time for a change.

"This is a $75 million-a-year industry and we're finding three out of every 100 cars perhaps has an issue with emissions. We need to look at a better system, we really do," Dodd told Choi.

Georgia started tracking car pollution 30 years ago. At the time, 20 metro Atlanta counties failed to meet federal air quality standards.

Today, it's down to just seven core counties: Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, Henry, Gwinnett and Cherokee.

"We've been progressing and reducing the footprint of areas," said Dika Kuoh, assistant branch chief of the air protection branch of Georgia EPD.

Kuoh said that could mean in 2021, the state could evaluate whether to end the testing for good. Dodd questions if they really worked in the first place.

"It's really mystifying to me that we want to talk about air quality, yet we exempt and offer waivers to so many of these categories," Dodd said.

Exemptions for emissions tests include senior citizens that drive fewer than 5,000 miles a year and those who spent $918 or more on repairs and still can't pass the test.

"We're really trying to make it easy on people, folks we feel like are not contributing greatly to pollution," Kuoh said.

Another concern from critics: the smog stations themselves. Channel 2 found 51 percent of them failed equipment audits by the EPD.

"We're trying very hard to make sure when we catch these things; we're addressing them," Kuoh said.

A handful of states, including Kentucky and Washington, ended their programs. Georgia hopes to look into doing the same in 2021.

"What got us to meet the standard is the programs that we have. So, we have to demonstrate that as we start unraveling some of these programs, that it won't go back to the pollution we had before," Kuoh said.

Customers with whom Choi spoke say it's worth the time and $25.

"I think we should err on the side of keeping the air clean," driver Chris Chiovacco said.

"It helps you keep up with your car if you have any repairs or anything needs to be done," customer Patricia Weathers said.

"There's a deterrence effect that comes from knowing that the test is coming. So, you have a check engine light. Your test is coming. Guess what? You're going to fix your vehicle," Kuoh said.

That hidden benefit isn't enough for Dodd.

“Now we have a new fleet of cars, we have great air quality overall and it's become a cash cow for emissions testing stations,” Dodd told Choi.

McClellan admits this is a profitable business. But if the state does away with emissions tests, he's got a plan.

"Well, we'd just be out of business. I'm 75. What the hell? I'll just finally retire," McClellan told Choi.
Along with traditional emissions tests, the EPD uses roadside monitors that can check your car as you drive by.

Georgia Tech also came up with the device, but it's too expensive for the state to use everywhere.