Is 'Clunkers' Helping Or Hurting The Environment?

The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that the government's hugely popular Cash for Clunkers program is leaving some of the most polluting automobiles on the road. Cars built before 1984 are excluded from the program because of lobbying efforts by classic car interests. Madeleine Brand speaks with L.A. Times reporter Ken Bensinger about the exemption.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

Our friends over at the L.A. Times found an interesting angle to the Cash for Clunkers program. They discovered why it only applies to cars made after 1984. If you have, say, a 1981 Datsun, you are out of luck. You can't turn in your car and get the rebate to buy a new one. Turns out, lobbyists for antique car collectors pushed for that 1984 cutoff date. Ken Bensinger of the L.A. Times is here now to explain. So, why 1984?

Mr. KEN BENSINGER (L.A. Times): 1984 is somewhat arbitrary, but it's based on the fact that it's 25 years ago. And that's the age that antique car collectors and antique car clubs have decided is the cutoff for a classic car. And many states, in fact, offer special protections for classic cars based entirely on that age.

BRAND: Although I would say - I would argue a 1981 Datsun is not exactly a classic car.

Mr. BENSINGER: I might agree with you. But there are people out there who will say you don't know what it will feel like in 20 years, and today's clunker is tomorrow's classic.

BRAND: You're saying that today's Pontiac Aztek is - could one day be a collectible?

Mr. BENSINGER: Yeah. I spoke to a guy who works at a publication called Hemmings, which is a big magazine for classic car enthusiasts. And he said, yeah, today's, you know, Aztek is someone's dream car in 20 years. And their feeling is that you don't know what's going to be a classic.

BRAND: Well, so, why did they want to protect those cars? What's in it for them?

Mr. BENSINGER: Well, there's two things going on. One, there are hobbyists who truly are passionate about older cars and sort of wake up with nightmares in the night thinking that somewhere, some beautiful old car is being crushed and could have been saved. Then there's the people who have a business stake in it, and they believe that where there's fewer old cars out there, there's fewer cars to sell parts for and to do service on. And their business interests in it is as keeping as many cars out there as possible that they can do work on.

BRAND: So, how many cars does that add up to that don't qualify for the program?

Mr. BENSINGER: According to active vehicle registrations, they are about 4.8 million cars built in 1983 or earlier. So give or take a little bit for ones made in 1984 that are no longer eligible, you're talking around five million cars.

BRAND: Five million cars that don't get the best gas mileage.

Mr. BENSINGER: Some of them get truly horrible gas mileage. And to be fair, some of them from the early �80s probably get okay gas mileage. What many of them are truly horrible on is smog contamination, because any car made from the mid-�70s and earlier don't have catalytic converters. And studies show that they can emit anywhere from 10 to 400 times more smog than modern cars.

BRAND: So, I had no idea, first of all, that there was a classic car lobby, and secondarily, that they would be so powerful as to get this into this big program. How did that happen?

Mr. BENSINGER: They're actually surprisingly powerful, and have been for a while, on specific regulation and laws that apply to cars. In California and many other states, smog rules do not apply to classic cars. And I heard from a gentleman today from one of the California regulators of smog who said, specifically, this trade group based here in California got that exemption. And in the case of Cash for Clunkers, they were originally opposed to the bill altogether. As a compromise with legislators, they agreed to not fight it in return for getting this exclusion put in so that they would protect those cars. But if you talk to the trade group, which is called the Specialty Equipment Market Association, they'll tell you that, in general, they would prefer Cash for Clunkers never existed.

BRAND: That's Ken Bensinger. He covers the automotive industry for the Los Angeles Times, and his article on why 1984 is the cutoff date for the Cash for Clunkers program is in today's paper. Thanks a lot.

Mr. BENSINGER: Thank you very much.

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