- Written by webmin
If the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first automobile smog bill hasn’t been overly memorialized, well, we’re not surprised. Between emissions regulations, safety oversight, insurance premiums and OPEC, the law enacted in April of 1960 was the first, and maybe most important, factor in ushering the almost 20 years of low-performance Seventies and Eighties.
With the privilege of hindsight, however, we can be more charitable. Detroit was ludicrously slow to adapt, but the imports were quicker (although Germany had some impressively emissions emasculated cars well through the Eighties), and ultimately, emissions regulations helped drive innovation and competition, until 50 years later, we’re finally starting to see alternatives to pure gas power (again).
Okay, so that’s not a particularly impressive timeline, but it’s an excuse to look back at the events leading up to 1960, when car exhaust first became regulated.
The word smog itself is credited to the Weather Bureau, which coined the term for mixed smoke and fog in 1914. (It was widely met with derision. As Kokomo Times asked, “But why end there? Let’s call a mixture of snow and mud ’smud.’ A mixture of snow and soot ’snoot,’ and a mixture of snow and hail ’snail.’ Thus we might have a weather forecast: ‘Snail today, turning to snoot tonight; tomorrow smoggy with smud’.”)
In 1928, Pittsburgh launched a War on Smog, in reaction to foul coal smoke that literally blackened the daytime skies. The Depression didn’t help their cause, as people burned ever-cheaper coal, and 10 years later there were still days when headlamps were mandatory, if ineffectual against the apocalyptic blanket of filth. By then, it was a source of perverse pride – “prosperity smog,” they called it, and other cities were positively envious, even as the health and safety detriment became obvious.
Compared to factory and furnace effluent, then, automobile pollution was beneath notice, and Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis joined Pittsburgh in campaigns to control smokestack emissions. In response to ever increasing industrial pollution, primarily in L.A., California passed the California Air Pollution Control District Act of 1947, which gave counties the authority to address air pollution on a local level. L.A. promptly formed the nation’s first country agency dedicated to air pollution, the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District (APCD).
The car didn’t come into it until 1949, when medical resources freed up after the war started to look into tailpipe emissions. That summer, smog was the main topic of the AMA convention in Atlantic City, and L.A. County Smog Control Director Dr. Louis C. McCabe discovered a hitherto unexplained concentration of organic peroxides in L.A.’s increasingly dingy air – among the sources he identified were incomplete combustion from automobile engines – and the die was cast.
In 1954, the Automobile Manufacturers Association formed a committee to look into the issue, and that summer an early catalytic converter, or “antismog muffler,” was being tested independently by L.A. Smog Director Gordon P. Larson, but it was much too late. L.A.’s two million cars were racking up 50 million miles a day.
It came to a head in October of 1954, when for 18 consecutive days, Los Angeles was enveloped in the worst smog it had ever experienced. It was even worse again in November, a literally zero-visibility cloud extending 20 miles inland, leading to looting, deaths and, on November 27, more than 1,500 accidents. A populace irritated both literally and figuratively besieged Governor Goodwin J. Knight with pleas to do something about the situation.
The legislature would get around to it eventually, but the ‘47 law gave counties the power to do something themselves, and San Francisco and neighboring communities were the first, passing the Bay Area Air Pollution Control Law, which created the Bay Area Air Pollution Control District (BAAPCD) in 1955.
Then it got ugly. In July 1958, the L.A. County Grand Jury issued a written opinion lambasting the APCD and automakers, which together had expended “millions for glitter and hardly one cent for defense of the health and protection of the American citizens against smog.”
Spurred into action, the U.S. Public Health Service organized a national conference on air pollution in Washington, D.C., in November. With 900 public and private sector attendees, it became an overwhelming indictment of the automobile and the industry as polluters. APCD research director Dr. Leslie A. Chambers threatened “drastic action” against manufacturers if tailpipe emissions didn’t improve dramatically. The State didn’t wait long.
As 1959 dawned, the AMA made it clear that despite numerous claims made through the Fifties, they had no pollution control device anywhere near production ready. State Senator Richards and the Board of Health started discussing publicly the idea of a state air quality standard, while L.A. County supervisors called for a special session of the state legislature to address smog. Assemblyman Seth J. Johnson introduced a bill that would require all major automakers to appear before the legislature in February to explain their failings, while L.A. Mayor Norris Poulson proposed banning polluting automobiles entirely by 1961. Governor Edmund G. Brown introduced his own bill, asking the legislature to give his office the authority to legislate on matters of public health.
In 1960, he got it, in combination with a bill requiring what would become the PCV system, extracting crankcase fumes and reintroducing them to the intake stream. The legislature also called for the testing of a high-temperature catalytic converter and establishing carbon monoxide emissions standards.
It all took a couple of years to come together, but it wasn’t long before the idea of a California car took on a new meaning, as specialized engine and exhaust systems were developed. California’s executive office has never relinquished the power to legislate for the public health, even as national emissions and fuel economy standards were enacted.
You may not like or agree with California’s stand over the years, but it has consistently been a driver of progress in emissions and fuel economy, and we may all end up thanking them in the end.