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STUDY THE NEW AUTO EMISSION PLAN

The Wasatch Front has done a good job of clearing the air in recent years, keeping ozone and carbon monoxide levels under federal limits for four years. But with the population growing rapidly, air pollution is bound to become a problem again soon.

That's why a proposal for Salt Lake County to implement a more rigid automobile emissions standard deserves serious consideration.The brain child of the Salt Lake City-County Board of Health, the plan calls for using an expensive treadmill system to test cars. Such equipment would allow testers to see if automobiles pollute when they are in gear. Currently, all tests are performed on cars while they idle. The new equipment also would be able to find failures that are difficult to detect in modern, sophisticated engines.

Only cars made after 1990 would need these new tests. Older cars could continue with the current system.

The plan has its drawbacks. Because the equipment costs about $100,000 per machine, many of the small businesses that currently run tests would be unable to do so. In fact, the county probably would accept bids from the five or six companies nationwide that specialize in providing such services. The result would be a centralized system, rather than the wide-open, independent system Utahns now enjoy. Instead of traveling to the neighborhood gas station for a test, county residents would go to one of a handful of testing centers.

But proponents insist county officials can protect drivers against having to sit in a long line to be tested. All they have to do is specify in the request for bids that the testing company must provide a sufficient number of sites in central locations to keep waits no longer than 15 minutes.

Of course, drivers whose cars flunk the test would have to go elsewhere for repairs, then return to sit in line again. But this would be a minor inconvenience if the lines are short.

A centralized system means big business. Today's system is run by small business, which is better for the economy and for motorists. But at least the proposal calls for private industry, not government, to operate the tests.

Another drawback is that drivers would have to pay more under the proposed changes. By some estimates, the cost would jump from the current $14 to $25. Officials want to counter this by making the tests mandatory every two years, rather than every year.

State officials have been fighting the Environmental Protection Agency over its plan to mandate stricter pollution controls. Utah officials argue, correctly, that the state's air is considerably better now than only a few years ago.

But that condition is bound to change with growth. County commissioners will decide soon whether to accept the plan. It deserves serious consideration. Meanwhile, motorists had better be prepared for the inevitable: As cars get more sophisticated and expensive, sooner or later the same thing is bound to happen to emissions tests, too.