Regen Swain shares a drink with a few friends, milling about between classic cars and jetted-out Ferraris meticulously restored and on display for a “Rumble in the Park” in downtown Salt Lake City on a recent Sunday.

Swain is new to the vintage car scene, having bought his 1938 Chevrolet Coupe just a few months earlier. The love of classic cars has been with him since he was young, and he sees it as something that his family can enjoy together — a common story among the antique car owners showing off their rides at Pioneer Park.

Anyone looking at Swain’s Chevy would instantly recognize it as a vintage vehicle. But what about a 1991 Ford F-150?

According to state law, both of the vehicles can be called “vintage” — and that is raising concern among some lawmakers.

The problem, they say, is that once a car is 30 years old, it can be registered as vintage and is then exempt from annual emissions testing required to help improve Utah’s air quality.

They are OK with classic car enthusiasts like Swain and others who gather in parks or drive in parades to show off their restoration projects, but it’s the people who use their older vehicles for their daily commutes that cause a problem.

How vintage vehicles are loosely defined

The vintage license plate was designed to grant exemptions from emissions testing for older, classic cars that were only utilized to travel to car shows and exhibitions. The plate is granted to cars at least 30 years old that are labeled as “collector’s items.” But the regulations do not specify what models qualify nor do they set specific limits on mileage.

A 1932 rat rod with vintage vehicle plates is pictured during the “Rumble in the Park” car show at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 13, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Some legislators and activists say the lack of clarity is leading to misuse of the special tags. One lawmaker noted that recent data shows owners of 30- to 39-year-old vehicles in counties that require emissions testing are much more likely to apply for the vintage plate than those that live in counties that don’t.

“I can’t even think of what I would try to measure to explain that difference,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who recently discussed the issue at the Utah Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee. “It’s just so big. I have no idea what could possibly be explaining these differences other than the emissions testing.”

Counties that require testing emissions do have larger populations, which might be a reason behind the difference. However, when comparing two similarly populated counties side by side, the disparity becomes much clearer. Registration data from the DMV shows that Washington County and Weber County both have about 3,500 vehicles between 30 and 39 years old registered with the DMV. Less than 4% of those cars in Washington County have a vintage license plate, while more than 40% of those cars in Weber County are registered as vintage vehicles.

Washington County doesn’t test emissions. Weber County does.

This similarity is seen across Utah’s counties. Of the counties that test emissions (Salt Lake, Davis, Utah, Weber and Cache), about 26% of 30- to 39-year-old cars have a vintage plate. Of the counties that don’t, only about 3% are registered with that tag.

Wayne Jones, executive director of the Used Car Dealers Association, said he’s seen, “more abuses than reasons to have them” when it comes to vintage license plates.

How commuter cars with vintage plates harm the air

The United States began to implement emission standards for 1968 model year vehicles, and they have been tightened year by year as more research has come out about the hazardous effects of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted in a car’s exhaust. These compounds react in the atmosphere to create ozone, which is a severe irritant for the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These chemicals can also induce acute symptoms, like headaches and nausea, and have been linked to the development of tumors in the lungs, says a study in PubMed.

These chemicals are of special concern in Utah, where most of the population lives in valleys that face extreme winter and summer inversions. Inversions trap hazardous air for days in the same area, leading to further exacerbation of symptoms associated with these pollutants, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. | Qiling Wang, Deseret News

The systems that control emissions in newer cars are highly effective and can significantly cut the amount of pollution put out by a car. New passenger vehicles, trucks and buses are 99% cleaner than 1970 models of the same car, according to the EPA.

Without knowing how many cars are regularly driving the roads using older engines and emissions systems, health officials are operating in a blind spot.

“If people do qualify for a plate, we don’t ever see the vehicle,” said Corbin Anderson, of the Salt Lake County Health Department. “Once it registers as a vintage vehicle, it’s exempted by the state from emissions testing. And we know that people often don’t maintain their vehicles as well as they might if not for having to pass an inspection every few years.”

Anderson emphasizes that emissions testing isn’t a punishment; it’s a seat belt. Emissions testing allows drivers to spot issues in their cars before they become catastrophic and expensive. A neglected car will end up costing more in the long run, as unchecked cars could be wasting more fuel, breaking down more often and could even face a total engine failure if not inspected every few years.

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“Pollution is a significant factor to public health and individual health, especially to people with existing health issues like asthma and pulmonary disease,” said Anderson. “We can’t really capture air like we do with solid waste or water pollution. What we do have is a device on a vehicle that can change the emissions, or catalyze and filter them, which can reduce the emissions that a vehicle puts out there. That’s all we’ve got. ... The only way to prevent air pollution is to not produce it.”

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Lawmaker has been looking at issue for years

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has been researching this issue for three years, trying to craft a bill for the next legislative session that can properly address clarify the car classification. His interest in it sparked when a friend told him how excited he was that his truck was now 30 years old, and he’d no longer need to go in for emissions testing. Knowing that this was his friend’s commuter vehicle, the fact that he’d be dodging emissions testing concerned Eliason. 

As he researched further, he found that this was a common problem the Utah Department of Air Quality had been dealing with for years. The current legislation applies the exemption to any vehicle in that age class — vintage or not — and has no real methods of enforcement. As long as users pay a registration fee for their vintage license plate, they receive virtually no oversight for how they use that vintage car.

“Every year, we’re creating a class of exemptions for cars we know, empirically, are among the highest polluters on the road,” said Eliason. “What we’re doing is disincentivizing people from buying new cars. ‘Just hold on to that truck for a few more years, and then you won’t have to pay for emissions testing on it.’”

The Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee opened a bill file to study the special license plates at its meeting Wednesday. Eliason and Thurston have both discussed presenting separate bills addressing the problem. 

They are looking at setting the emissions exemption not by age, but by miles driven, though the method by which that is recorded is still in question, as many older vehicles don’t have GPS technology, Thurston said. They are also considering changing the date by which a vehicle is classified vintage, making the cutoff 40 or 50 years old instead 30.

Other states have made changes in response to similar abuses of the vintage plate. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration updated its rules in 2016 to prohibit historic vehicles from being driven to work, school or for commercial use. If these cars are pulled over by police, they may be subject to safety equipment repair orders, the new policy notes.

The issue worries Utah clean air advocates as well.

“We have so many cars on the road nowadays,” says Ashley Miller from Breathe Utah, a nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of air issues in the state. “So it’s really important that if they fall out of compliance, the registered owner gets them back to compliance so we’re not having even more pollution on the road.”

Classic car shows not viewed as problem

The emissions exemption is not a problem for cars that primarily travel to car shows and club events, like the ’38 Chevy driven by Swain. He uses another car for daily commuting, with the antique more of a hobby than a road-trip ride.

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Even cars that travel a large distance for car shows aren’t the ones making a dent. Nick Lobos, who drives his “Rockabilly” ’50s Ford from Kearns to Las Vegas every year for the Viva Las Vegas car show, says he only drives about 600 miles annually. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the 15,500 miles driven by the average Utahn in a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

A new car can’t produce more than 0.2 grams of nitrogen oxides per mile, but ones built in the 1980s can create a full gram per mile and those from the mid-’70s generate 3 grams. This means a modern car driven the state’s average number of miles creates just 6.6% of the nitrogen oxide that would be created by a car built three to four decades ago.

Classic car owners don’t want to pollute the road, Swain said. He isn’t opposed to the changes to the vehicles that the next few years will bring in regards to clean air. In fact, he’s already started making some.

“I have an electric lawnmower. I’m going to switch to an electric water heating system soon,” he said, tapping the hood of the red automobile. “And in a few years, I expect this to be powered by an electric motor someday.”

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