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BIG BROTHER SNIFFING CARS? DON’T FRET OVER SENSORS

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People who like Photocop will love the new pollution sensors scheduled to be tested in Utah County next month.

Using equipment in a van parked alongside the road, the county soon will send out infrared beams to measure the carbon monoxide coming from passing cars. A video camera, meanwhile, will capture the license plate numbers of vehicles found to be blowing too much smoke.No one will be issued citations or notices, yet. But that may change some day. The technology still is in its infant stages, but it is here, and it likely won't go away.

A segment of the population is bound to be offended by this, as it is with Photocop, which catches speeders and cites them through the mail. Many people don't like the idea of machines monitoring their movements with callous precision.

Admittedly, the thought is rather disconcerting, but remote sensing eventually could make auto testing less intrusive than it already is.

If the technology improves and becomes highly effective, motorists may one day no longer have to submit to a yearly test while registering their cars. That probably won't satisfy the people who would prefer to deal with humans or who worry about the inevitable day when they endure expensive repairs only to have an unfeeling sensor nab them again on their way home.

But rest easy. The day when sensors replace emissions tests is far in the future. In its current form, the technology leaves a lot to be desired.

For one thing, it can only accurately test vehicles across one lane of traffic. That means sensors must be placed only on smaller side streets or on freeway ramps. That, in turn, means the county would have to use several of them to catch everyone, moving the equipment frequently to keep people from deliberately avoiding detection. At $250,000 a pop, that might prove to be too expensive, and it would hardly be effective. In California, a 500-hour study of the system showed it could monitor only half the vehicles in a community.

For another thing, the sensors are geared more toward measuring carbon monoxide than the fine particulates that are of such concern along the Wasatch Front.

And for a third thing, motorists can cheat. The equipment will sense if a driver is coasting to reduce emissions. If so, the data received would be considered useless. Also, cars that haven't warmed up sufficiently would be found to generate much more pollution than after a few minutes of driving.

Utah County can hardly be blamed for testing the new system, designed by Hughes Corp. of Santa Barbara, Calif. County officials have the Environmental Protection Agency breathing down their necks, demanding further reductions in air pollution despite the fact it has been years since any county in the state violated federal clean-air standards.

When the sensors begin their work in September, Utah County will use them only as a complement to the current emissions system - a way to monitor air quality while avoiding a federal edict to establish centralized testing stations. Those, by the way, already have led to mass revolts in Texas and Pennsylvania, among other states.

No doubt the county would like to wait until the technology improves before investing tax dollars, but federal bureaucrats rarely are so patient, nor are they sensitive to the pocketbooks of local taxpayers.

The EPA has been rigid, dogmatic and unreasonable in refusing to recognize the strides made toward cleaning the air along the Wasatch Front. But as far as solutions go, remote sensors are among the least intrusive ways to satisfy its demands.