I first visited Alabama in 2001 when I was checking out grad schools. I rented a car in Birmingham and drove to Tuscaloosa. It’s not a long drive between the cities – only about an hour – but it’s good to have something to listen to. Because iPods didn’t exist in the stone ages, and because country music makes me cry, I turned to talk radio. And what I heard shocked me: for the first time in state history, Alabama was going to require drivers to carry auto insurance.
“Oh my God,” people were complaining. “How could they?!?”
This new lawless way of life was foreign to me, but over the next few years I caught on. I learned to drive in the right-hand lane if I was going less than 100 mile per hour — and to avoid pickup trucks carrying refrigerators stacked on top of each other — and, on one desperate occasion, to use my windshield wipers when caught behind a woodchipping truck.
“Some day,” I remember telling myself while white-knuckling the steering wheel, “I will live in a state with rules, and regulations, and a healthy respect for human life.”
Then I moved to California . . .
. . . and tried to renew the registration on my wife’s Volvo.
For those of you who don’t know, California has some of the toughest smog rules in the nation. And they should. Because taking a deep breath around here is about as healthy as licking your shoe. But, for that very reason, my wife’s Volvo should be the kind of car that California puts on a pedestal. According to its most recent smog test, our British beauty is emitting less than half as many hydrocarbons as the average car, a third as much carbon monoxide, and absolutely zero oxides of nitrogen (bad smog stuff).
So why did it fail the emissions test?
Because about six months ago I disconnected the battery in order to clean the posts. And when I did that, it reset the car’s on-board computer. And when the computer got reset, it erased all the data the car had compiled regarding self-diagnostic checks.
Okay, that’s not so bad. Just drive the car around some more and the computer will recheck itself, right?
Well, my friend, I have driven the car 1000 miles since then. And every time I go back to the smog station (4 times over the past 3 months), they tell me there’s nothing wrong with the car, I just have to keep driving it until it completes its self-diagnostic checks. And then I go back to the DMV and tell them what the smog station said and the DMV tells me the car’s registration has expired and it’s illegal to keep driving it.
You see the problem here?
This week, after receiving my first “expired tags” citation, I went barnstorming. I talked with people at the Office of the State Referee, the Bureau of Automotive Repairs, and my local Volvo dealer. And, finally, I found someone who knew what he was talking about — a “Smog Guru” in Santa Monica. You think Santa Monica confines itself to herbal-living, invisibly energy, gemstone Gurus? No, Sir. They have Gurus for everything.
He laughed when I explained the problem.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“What’s funny is, you’re the second person come in here with this today. What a f%#@job.”
Then he pulled a crusty manual off his shelf and xeroxed a couple pages for me.
“Some Volvo’s are tricky,” he said. “This is what you need to do before the computer will complete its self-diagnostics.”
I will reprint for you now the document . . .
Step 1: Idle 20 seconds. Accelerate gradually and drive 20-25 mph for 1 minute. Vary speed.
Step 2: Drive at 25-31 mph for 35 seconds. Decelerate to 0 mph in 10 seconds. Idle 40 seconds.
Step 3: Accelerate moderately. Drive at 20-25 mph for 20 seconds. Increase speed to 40-55 for 85 seconds, then decelerate to 0 over 50 seconds. Idle 15 seconds.
Step 4: Gradually increase speed to 36 mph in 35 seconds. Decelerate to 0 in 15 seconds. Idle 10 seconds.
Step 5: Accelerate to 30 mph and decelerate to 0 over 25 second period. Idle 20 seconds.
Step 6: Accelerate to 36 mph in 20 seconds. Drive at 35 mph for 20 seconds. Decelerate to 0 in 15 seconds. Idle 5 seconds.
Step 7: Accelerate to 26 mph and decelerate to 0 in 40 seconds. idle 15 seconds.
Step 8: Accelerate to 27 mph in 40 seconds. Decelerate to 0 in 8 seconds. Idle 25 seconds.
Step 9: Accelerate to 26 mph and decelerate to 0 in 25 seconds. idle 15 seconds.
Step 10: Drive in stop-and-go traffic for 1 minute, reaching 25-30 mph twice, with no complete stops.
Step 11: Drive at 20-30 mph for 2 minutes and stop. Vary speed. Drive at 20-28 mph for 2 ½ minutes at varying speeds. Stop. Idle 30 seconds.
Step 12: Accelerate to 28 mph and back to 0 in 50 seconds. Accelerate to 20 mph in 10 seconds, drive at 20-27 mph for 20 seconds and decelerate to 0 in 10 seconds. Idle 15 seconds.
Step 13: Accelerate to 23 mph and back to 0 in 20 seconds. Idle 10 seconds. Accelerate to 22 mph and back to 0 in 45 seconds. Idle 10 seconds.
Step 14: Accelerate to 25 mph in 30 seconds. Drive at 23-28 mph for 25 seconds. Decelerate to 0 in less than 10 seconds.
Step 15: Idle 25 seconds. Accelerate to 22 mph and back to 0 in 30 seconds.
I hope to God you didn’t just read all that. Because that’s only the first page.
Here is the second:
Step 1: Start the engine. Idle for 20 seconds.
Step 2: Accelerate at part throttle to 30 mph. Cruise at 20-30 mph for 2 minutes. Stop the vehicle. Idle for 40 seconds.
Step 3: Accelerate at part throttle to 25 mph in 15 seconds. Cruise at 17-25 mph for 15 seconds. Accelerate at 40 mph. Cruise at 40-56 mph for 2 minutes. Decelerate to 0. Idle for 15 seconds.
Step 4: Accelerate at part throttle 28-36 mph for 25 seconds. Idle for 20 seconds.
Step 5: Accelerate to 30 mph and back to 0 in 25 seconds. Idle for 20 seconds.
Step 6: Accelerate at part throttle to 35 mph; cruise at 35 mph for 30 seconds. Idle for 20-25 seconds. Repeat this step.
Step 7: Accelerate at part throttle to 25-26 mph and back to 0 in 40-50 seconds. Idle for 20-25 seconds. Repeat this step.
Step 8: Accelerate at part throttle to 26 mph and back to 0 in 30 seconds. Idle for 15 seconds.
Step 9: Accelerate at part throttle to 23 mph. Drive in a stop-and-go manner from 0-28 mph for 70 seconds. Accelerate at part throttle to 33 mph. Cruise between 25-35 mph, varying the speed smoothly.
Step 10: Stop and accelerate gradually to 28 mph. Cruise at 20-28 for 60 seconds. Idle for 30 seconds.
Step 11: Drive in a stop-and-go manner for between 17-27 mph for 1-1/2 minutes. idle for 15 seconds.
Step 12: Accelerate from 0-23 mph and back to 0 in 20 seconds. Idle for 10 seconds.
Step 13: Accelerate at part throttle to 22 mph and back to 0 in 45 seconds. idle for 10 seconds.
Step 14: Accelerate at part throttle. Cruise at 20-30 mph for 60 seconds. Idle for 25 seconds.
Step 15: Accelerate steady to 22 mph and back to 0 in 35 seconds.
And I’m supposed to do each of those routines twice. Consecutively. Without interruption.
Keep in mind I live in a city that looks approximately like this in the morning:
and this in the daytime:
and this at night:
So what am I gonna do? I don’t really know. But if you see a guy who looks like George Clooney driving a Volvo twenty-two miles per hour down the 101, please do not roll down your window and tell him he’s a loser.