05/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Smog Checks & Chastened Idealism

My first job in politics was as an assistant to the Lt. Governor of California in the Pat Brown years. Hard to believe it was 43 years ago.

I came to politics and government with a great deal of idealism. I truly believed people committed to public service could be a positive force for good in the lives of others.

My initial experience was followed by working for Robert F. Kennedy in the presidential campaign of '68, and then five years working on Capitol Hill in Washington. But while I have been out of formal politics for 38 years, neither politics nor the art of governance has ever been far from my mind.

While my idealism has been frequently chastened by realism, I've never stopped believing in the Athenian ideal of citizen involvement in civic life, of our duty to participate in the democratic process, to be knowledgeable about public affairs.

What brought this to mind was a story recently in The New York Times about cash payments for people who trade in "clunkers" for fuel-efficient vehicles.

The story's arresting paragraph said this, "In California, a statewide program has been in effect for almost a decade...Drivers whose vehicle fails a smog check are entitled to have their cars scrapped and are paid $1,000 in return."

As an inveterate reader of three newspapers a day and thinking I'm reasonably well informed, this state giveaway program, cash for clunkers, had altogether escaped my notice.

With a financially challenged grandson away at college and owning a 19-year old SUV, which he can neither afford to drive nor fix because the vehicle lacks smog certification, this seemed the perfect solution; why, almost too good to be true.

So I went go online to check out the program. Google directed me the California State Office of Consumer Affairs. Smog checks, it turns out, are handled by consumer affairs, not DMV.

That seemed odd, consumer affairs rather than DMV. Who would have thought? But if this were a truly workable program, the state agency running it wouldn't matter.

However, idealism is the certain loser when confronted by the bureaucratic nature of California state government -- consumer affairs or not.

From the web I printed up a six page document with the title, "Smog Check: Consumer Assistance Financial Application."

Which read, "Qualified consumers may receive financial assistance to make Smog Check related repairs, or retire their high polluting vehicles."

Under "Vehicle Retirement Requirements" are the following:

You must be the registered owner

You must pay all appropriate registration fees for the vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Your vehicle must have a failed "biennial" (every other year) Smog Check inspection (aborted, manual mode, and training mode tests do not qualify).

Your vehicle must not have a "tampered" emissions-control system.

Your vehicle must not be in the process of being sold or being initially registered in California.

Your vehicle must not be registered to a business, fleet, or non-profit organization.

Your vehicle must have failed a Smog Check no later than 180 days after the expiration date of the current registration with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Your vehicle must have been continuously registered as an operable vehicle in California for two years immediately preceding the current registration expiration date.

Your vehicle must be a passenger vehicle or light-duty truck.

Your vehicle must pass a visual and operational check.

Under "Vehicle Equipment Requirements" the following must be present:

All doors.

Hood lid.



At least one side window glass.

Driver's seat.

At least one bumper.

Exhaust system.

All side and/or quarter panels.

At least one headlight, one taillight, and one brake light.

Finally, under "Vehicle Operational Requirements" there's this:

Vehicle must be driven to an approved dismantler under its own power.

Vehicle engine starts readily through ordinary means without the use of starting fluids or external booster batteries.

Vehicle drivability is not affected by any body, steering, or suspension damage.

Vehicle is able to drive forward a minimum distance of 10 yards under its own power.

Interior pedals are operational.

Remember, all of this the state requires in order to crush a vehicle to smithereens. As I wrote above, "why, almost too good to be true."

No kidding.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at