Editorial: Cutting back on clunkers, ancient and otherwise

Think “clunker” and a rusty, 30- or 40-year-old bucket of bolts probably comes to mind. Yet under the county’s latest rendition of the “cash for clunkers” program — which is officially titled the Old Car Buyback Program — vehicles made as recently as 1992 may qualify for an $800 payment.

Even a ’92 is significantly more polluting than a newer model — an indication of how much progress has been made in producing cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Consider: According to county Air Pollution Control District, a ’92 car emits 56 times as many ozone-forming pollutants as a 2011 model.

Here’s an even more staggering figure: If you look at all older cars eligible for buyback programs, they emit, on average, 96 times more pollutants than a brand new model.

With many parts of California still struggling to meet ozone requirements, “cash for clunkers” is a program that continues to make sense, at least from an environmental standpoint.

From an economic one, though, there have been doubters.

Some question whether this is the best use of vehicle license fees, but when you consider that this revenue can only be used for grant programs to reduce pollution, we believe the county is wise to participate.

Critics also have pointed out that taking older cars off the resale market makes it tougher on lower-income buyers who can’t afford newer cars, and classic car enthusiasts have complained about junking older cars that could be used for parts.

In response, the county Air Pollution Control District maintains a list of cars due to be dismantled in case car buffs want to buy them.

It should be noted, too, that we aren’t talking about massive buybacks.

The county Air Pollution Control District’s most recent allocation was $250,000 — enough to buy 250 older-model vehicles. Even that goal of 250 may be ambitious, given that the buybacks aren’t going to make sense for all potential sellers.

For one, $800 isn’t a great incentive for someone with a 1992 vehicle that’s still in good condition. We checked the Blue Book values for two models from that year — a Toyota Camry and a Ford Crown Victoria — and they were in the $1,500 range.

Also, the program has several requirements: Vehicles must be currently registered; in operating condition; and if they’re within 60 days of requiring a smog check, they must take and pass a smog inspection.

That’s as it should be. The idea is to take polluting cars off the road — not to provide cash for inoperable vehicles sitting in garages.

Again, this program isn’t designed to take every older car off the road. But given that passenger vehicles are one of the biggest sources of air pollution in San Luis Obispo County, we believe it makes sense to slowly reduce the number of “clunkers” on our local streets and highways.

Buyback program

For information about the county’s Old Car Buyback Program, call 1-800-717-7624.