Published in the August 5, 2009 edition of the Ventura County Star
Peter Fonda, in a role not unlike his Captain America character in “Easy Rider,” played Heavenly Blues, the leader of a chopper chapter from Venice, Calif. “The Wild Angels” (1966) was screenwriter Charles B. Griffith’s only foray into the zen of maintaining a motorcycle lifestyle, yet enthusiasts can quote, chapter and verse, from Heavenly Blues’ paean to libertarianism: “We wanna be free. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man!”
Speaking of “The Man,” only a few months after “The Wild Angels” was released, the Air Quality Act mandated that the federal government conduct extensive ambient monitoring studies and stationary source inspections. A few years later, the Clean Air Act of 1970 required the Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce regulations to protect the public against airborne contaminants considered hazardous to health.
California, which continues to develop more stringent standards than the feds or to fast-track them into existence ahead of EPA deadlines, remains a special case. According to a recent American Lung Association report, nine of the nation’s 10 worst cities for smog can be found in the Golden State. Furthermore, although California’s existing programs halt 400 tons of smog-forming pollutants daily — primarily from light-duty cars, trucks and SUVs — California is mandated, by 2023, to save several hundred more tons of pollution per day to meet federal clean-air requirements.
The California Air Resources Board estimates that 5.2 tons of pollutants would be prevented from entering the atmosphere daily if smog checks for the 841,081 registered motorcycles in California were required.
According to the CARB comparison of emissions-compliant vehicles, while on-road motorcycles and scooters make up 3.6 percent of registered vehicles and 1 percent of vehicle miles traveled, they account for an alarming 10 percent of smog-forming emissions. To paint the picture in other words, the average motorcycle is about 10 times more polluting per mile than a passenger car, light truck or SUV.
How can this be? Aren’t motorcycles and scooters, on average, about twice as fuel-efficient as four-wheel vehicles? Can’t some get more than 60 miles per gallon? Isn’t mpg the reason, during this disastrous downturn, so many folks are trading their gas-guzzlers for motorized two-wheel transportation?
Even though internal-combustion engines housed in compact, lightweight vehicles such as scooters and motorcycles more effectively convert gas into go-power, the major problem is that 14 times more hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen (two of the three pollutants measured by CARB) come with the astonishing mpg scores. To meet California vehicle-emissions standards in 2008, 87 percent of motorcycles had to be factory-equipped with catalytic converters. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay that way.
A Motorcycle Industry Council survey reports 38 percent of all motorcyclists replace or modify their exhaust systems. A more recent CARB study found the figure to be a distressing 85 percent. While state law prohibits modifications that increase emissions, unfortunately, it doesn’t specify catalytic converter removal.
To that end, state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who represents parts of Oxnard and Port Hueneme, introduced SB435, which initially required motorcycles to undergo smog checks every two years. “As they came in for a smog check, the idea was you could check to see if they had a catalytic converter at the same time,” Pavley told The Star.
The California Senate, along party lines, approved (22-17) her legislation June 1, but only after Pavley agreed to drop smog checks and settle for merely ticketing and fining owners who “customize” by jettisoning catalytic converters. Enforcement, however, should be easy — that ear-splitting varoom, varoom coming from the back end of the bike is a dead giveaway.
“Motorcyclists,” Pavley told the Los Angeles Times, “perhaps don’t realize that those catalytic converters are absolutely critical to improving our air quality.” Don’t realize or don’t care? Just like Wild Angels, don’t these bikers just “wanna be free to ride [their] machines without being hassled by The Man”?
After all, as bike riders and dealers argue, motorcycles account for a trivial portion of vehicle miles traveled, significantly effective pollution-abatement technology doesn’t yet exist, and CARB’s wrath should really be raining down on high-polluting diesel trucks, construction equipment and noncompliant made-in-China vehicles instead.
It might surprise you to learn that not only was “The Wild Angels” nominated for a Venice Film Festival Golden Lion, but the cast also includes such Tinseltown luminaries as Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd and Michael J. Pollard.
The only missing cinematic easy rider seems to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Should Pavley’s bill make it to his desk, it’s even odds he’ll terminate it with his veto pen. Although Schwarzenegger wants to be known as a green “Governator,” he’s also been busted for driving his motorcycle without a license.
That’s a libertarian for you.