States Paying to Get Clunkers Off the Road

How can you get folks to scrap their low-mileage, high-polluting clunkers and buy more fuel-efficient machines?

Easy: Pass strict emissions testing legislation that in effect bans older, lower-mileage, higher-emission vehicles from the roads. Or, because owners of those vehicles are still voters, instead offer to buy up their old cars so they have the money to put down on a replacement vehicle.

The Detroit News reports that Texas launched a $45 million annual program in January called "Drive a Clean Machine," offering consumers in Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth up to $3,500 for their old car, to go toward the purchase of a new or less-than-3-year-old used vehicle priced at no more than $25,000. The offer, however, is only to low-income families of four with a combined income of less than $63,000 whose cars are drivable but fail the state emissions test. The program has taken more than 11,000 vehicles 10 years or older off the road so far this year. 

Americans junked an estimated 13 million vehicles in 2007, or 5.2 percent of the total on the road; that’s up from 5 percent in 2006. Estimates are that, starting with the clunkers, if you replaced 5 percent of all cars each year it would take 20 years for all vehicles on the road today to be replaced with more fuel-efficient hybrid, diesel, electric, or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Industry estimates are that 50 percent of all vehicles on the road are more than 10 years old, but a significant 30 percent are 15 years old or older, and 13 percent are 20 years old or older, ages that suggest the vehicles are low-mileage/high-emission machines. Yet with the weak economy, some consumers can't part with them, regardless of gas prices. Keep in mind that these old cars, for the most part, lack the latest in safety hardware as well.

In California, the state's Bureau of Automotive Repair handles a program that spends $50 million a year giving lower-income residents up to $1,500 to retire vehicles that fail emissions tests or $500 to have them repaired. The program replaced 16,000 vehicles last year.

On Jan. 1, Canada will begin a national $92 million program to get 50,000 older vehicles off the road by offering owners $300 cash or a discount on a bicycle or a public-transit pass in exchange for their older vehicle. The vehicles must be in running condition. 

Even the idea of getting clunkers off the road has its detractors: car collectors. They insist every time an old car is junked, so too are parts and components like doors, fenders and seats that could bring another collector car back to life. The 20-year-old Ford you junked may be just the car with the complete set of door handles they need to restore their old car.


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