Remember when the probe went up your tailpipe? Why cars were inspected in Florida

Cars line up at the auto Emissions inspection station at 13200 NW 42nd Ave.+
Cars line up at the auto Emissions inspection station at 13200 NW 42nd Ave.+ Miami Herald File

Cars once needed Florida’s seal of approval to hit the road.

The state required yearly inspections. That meant drivers had to visit an inspection station and wait in a line.

A more comprehensive inspection program ended in 1981. Drivers had to demonstrate the car was in good working order (lights, brakes, etc.). If everything checked out, an inspector would slap a colorful sticker on the windshield.

A more limited inspection program, focusing on emissions, was revived in 1991 and ended in 2000. An inspector would stick a probe up a vehicle’s tailpipe, press a few computer buttons and determine whether the car was clean enough for the road.

Here is a look back at that last inspection program through the Miami Herald archive.


Published March 24, 1991

Come April 1, it will be a return to the bad old days: Annual vehicle inspections will start in five counties.

But before you curse Florida’s powers-that-be, consider what the inspections are designed to do -- test the chemicals pouring out of millions of tailpipes each day.

The program, unlike the system Florida abandoned in 1981 amid public outrage over long lines and inept workers, requires only emissions testing. You can get mechanical safety inspections, but they aren’t required.

Florida has taken this step because it must. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the state to curb air pollution in its six most urban counties.

If Florida doesn’t act, it could lose federal transportation money. It may even have to impose building moratoriums.

The affected counties are Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Duval and Broward, where testing starts May 1. Those counties may not appear to be choked with smog. But they fall below federal air-quality standards, and they’re getting worse.

The next time you’re tooling around town, consider this: Your tailpipe is spewing hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. In sunlight, the chemicals form ozone, the principal element of smog.

That’s no problem in a rural area. But in Dade, with 1.8 million vehicles, it adds up. High ozone levels can cause serious respiratory effects, irritation of eyes, nose and throat, nasal congestion, nausea and headaches. It is especially a problem for those with chronic heart and lung disease.

Another byproduct of your engine’s operation is carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that can cause dizziness, headaches and fatigue.

When your car is not properly tuned or has some other problem, it contributes more harmful chemicals to the air. A vehicle’s emission can exceed acceptable levels due to improper maintenance, malfunctioning parts or simply normal use

.A car emimisions inspection station at West Dixie Highway and 144th Street in North Miami. Tim Chapman Miami Herald File


Published April 2, 1991

Drivers in Dade and Palm Beach counties Monday lined up for the first day of auto emissions testing and got a reminder of what Florida car inspections used to be like: wait, wait, and wait some more.

It took lots longer than the three to four minutes advertised by Systems Control, a private enterprise operating seven stations in Dade and five in Palm Beach County.

Problems with computerized testing equipment resulted in delays of more than an hour at the testing station in Boca Raton. In West Palm Beach, drivers and their cars sat in lines 12 deep. The average wait there: about 45 minutes.

“We’ve had a variety of opening day problems, like filters in the analyzer going out at Tropical Park,” said John P. Barbarino, general manager of Systems Control. “Two lanes were down for an hour and a half, and then at noontime everybody and his brother showed up wanting to be tested.”

Working right, the system worked pretty fast: License plates were entered into the computer, with the last three digits of each vehicle identification number. The state computers matched that information to the owner’s registration.

Station attendants stuck a long metal probe up the tail pipe for a minute or so as spectators modestly averted their eyes. Guided by instructions on a television monitor, the driver raced the engine with the back wheels spinning on rollers. Exhaust emission information raced into the computer.

Gas filler caps were checked to make sure they were the right kind. An attendant poked a mirror underneath to see if the exhaust pipe or muffler leaked. A machine printed out grades -- pass or fail.

When nothing went wrong at North Miami, the advertised no- sweat inspection time of three to four minutes was all it took to perform an inspection, but questions and answers -- especially when someone’s car flunked -- extended real time in the garage and, by further extension, the length of the line.

“This is for pollution control?” asked a frustrated Alan Weiss, stalled in line while waiting for a mechanic to probe his car’s tail pipe for pollution at the pink Congress Avenue station in West Palm Beach. “We’re creating a lot of pollution with all these cars waiting with their engines running.”

Besides the crashed computers, scads of confused drivers not yet due for the pollution tests poured into stations across the region, taxing the system on an already jittery first day for the inspection people.

“We were surprised at the volume of traffic,” said Chris Stock, a spokesman for Systems Control. “We got a lot of people who didn’t need to be there.”

Vehicles must pass inspection during a 90-day period before a car owner’s registration renewal deadline. Managers found that some drivers were more than a year early, having renewed their registrations before Monday’s inspection program got started.

In addition to Dade and Palm Beach counties, testing is required in Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Broward will start testing next month. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Florida to do something about air pollution in the six urban counties.

Lionell Powell was one of the few who didn’t mind the wait. Retired and suffering from emphysema, he said he had the time and the firsthand knowledge of how pollution can affect a person’s health.

“Anything for safety is worthwhile,” Powell said. “If this keeps someone else from getting in my condition, it’s worthwhile.”

A car enters the emission inspection station at 7248 SW 42nd Ter. Charles Trainor Jr Miami Herald File


Published June 15, 2000

Auto emissions inspections will end July 1 in Miami-Dade, Broward and four other counties under a measure Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law Wednesday.

Ending the annual inspections will save motorists $52 million “without harming the environment,” Bush said, calling the decade-old test “outdated and unnecessary.

“The vehicle inspection program is not an efficient tool for reducing pollution and is an unnecessary burden to motorists,” said Bush, who received dozens of e-mails and letters from drivers tired of sitting in line for the two-minute test.

Under the law, as of July 1, automobile owners in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Duval, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will no longer be required to pass an emissions test in order to renew their vehicle registration.

Bush said cleaner-burning fuels, cleaner-running vehicles and industry improvements make the tests obsolete.

“I haven’t heard from one person that hasn’t been glad to see the emissions program go,” said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. “I think people initially years ago thought it was a hassle, but they felt if it was contributing to something productive, they’d support it. Now they realize it’s not doing much, they’re frustrated with it.”

Though the tests are about to end, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which gave the state tentative approval to scrap emissions testing in South Florida, had second thoughts last week, announcing it will hold a public hearing July 20 in West Palm Beach because so many Floridians have written to oppose ending the tests.

The state technically does not need federal approval to end the tests, but the federal government holds the purse strings to millions of dollars in highway funds that might be jeopardized if Florida does not meet federal air quality standards in the Clean Air Act.

The state Department of Enviromental Protection called the possibility of federal sanctions “very remote” and said the state would have 18 months to correct any problems before highway funds are endangered.

The governor’s office said if the EPA were to retreat or Florida’s air quality ratings worsen, the state could cut pollutants by other measures without putting at risk the federal funds.

Lawmakers added the two Tampa Bay counties to the no-test list, even though the area is the source of Florida’s worst air, but Bush said Wednesday state environmental officials are “committed” to bringing the area into compliance with other air pollution measures.

But some environmentalists and the American Lung Association of Florida are unconvinced, criticizing the end of emissions testing as harmful to people who have breathing problems.

“Why not go for the cleanest air possible?” said Sandra Kessler, executive director of the health organization, which had hoped to convince lawmakers to include a check for nitrogen oxide, a leading source of pollutants. The outgoing test looks only for carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons.

“We’ll be monitoring the effects of this and our hope is to get new people in the Legislature who are concerned and interested in clean air and not just clean enough to get by,” Kessler said.