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SMOG COPS TAKE AIM AT L.A. POLLUTERS

Richard C. Sloan couldn't contain his glee as the faded Lincoln Continental drove through a remote smog-sensing unit's invisible beam on Crenshaw Boulevard.

"Oh, boy, will you look at that. It's the worst I've seen today," Sloan said recently after the numbers popped up on a television screen and an electronic sign flashed the word "POOR" in big, bright letters to the passing motorist.The driver had just been caught by the smog police, a fate awaiting scores of other Los Angeles-area motorists as air-quality regulators start putting the pinch on drivers of "gross polluting vehicles."

Officials are looking for about 10 percent of the region's cars and trucks that are responsible for as much as 80 percent of vehicle emissions, said Sloan, president of the Remote Sensing Division of Geochemical Engineering in Riverside, Calif., one of the companies implementing the state's program.

Four vans filled with smog-sensing equipment will be roaming Southern California streets and highways during the next several weeks to familiarize motorists with the $7.3 million program. For now, drivers will just see the electronic sign flash "POOR" if their vehicle is spewing too much exhaust.

But by late September, regulators will put the financial bite in their latest effort to clean up the nation's dirtiest air.

Here is what could happen to drivers of vehicles like the Lincoln:

The sensing device will snap a picture of a car's license plate in addition to measuring its tailpipe emission.

The owner will be notified by mail of the steps that must be taken to bring the vehicle into compliance with state emission standards.

The state requires drivers to pay for a smog test at a certified facility and as much as $450 on repairs if the vehicle fails the test.

Ignoring a notification or not getting a car fixed carries a maximum fine of $500 in each instance.

If the repair bill exceeds $450, vehicle owners can get a waiver that will allow them to drive the car until it is time for its next smog check. If it fails then, the owner will have to pay the full cost of bringing the car into compliance or stop driving it, said Patrick J. Dorais, deputy chief of the smog-check program for the state Bureau of Auto Repair.

"We're trying to tell motorists to do their part for clean air, and that includes maintaining their vehicles," Dorais said.

For example, during the program's introduction, motorists will be given ample warning that they will be passing through a smog checkpoint and a big sign will tell them whether their car was rated "GOOD," "FAIR" or "POOR."

State officials typically will remotely monitor a vehicle's emissions twice before sending out a notice to bring it for a smog check.

During a pilot program in Sacramento earlier this year, 58 percent of the cars checked passed through the sensors more than once, Dorais said.

And Sloan said technicians will carefully analyze the data before a notice is sent out.

"We don't want to misidentify somebody as a gross polluter," he said.

But the state has not decided whether motorists who are forced to take a smog test and pass will have to pay for it.