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I just had my 2007 Santa Fe serviced because the check engine light is on and I need to get a Drive Clean test. The fuel sensors are not working (the fuel gauge has not worked for months) and it will probably cost more than $600. Since the purpose of Drive Clean test is to monitor emissions coming from the car, I hope that something that has nothing to do with emissions will not prevent it from passing the test. I have heard that any time the check engine light is on, it is an automatic fail. Does the test not take into consideration the reasons that the check engine light comes on? – Jeff, Richmond Hill, Ont.

If the check engine light's on, there's nothing hazy about it – there's trouble with your emissions system, says a Richmond Hill mechanic.

"All check engine lights will be emissions related," says James Chow, Automotive Service Manager at Car House Auto Service. "There is no check engine light where it won't affect emissions."

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There are two situations when you need to take the province's $30 Drive Clean emissions test. The first is any time you're selling your car – even if it's brand new. It will have to pass or it can't change hands.

Otherwise, all light duty vehicles – cars, trucks and SUVs – in Southern Ontario have to pass the test every two years once they're seven years old.

If your car fails, you can't renew your registration until you get the problem fixed – but there's an exception.

Conditional pass for expensive fixes

"We have set a repair cost limit of $450," says Environment Ministry spokeswoman Kate Jordan in an e-mail. "After spending up to that amount in repairs, a vehicle owner can qualify for a conditional pass which is good for two years and can be used for renewing a vehicle's registration."

So, if your car fails, the shop will charge you around $90 in labour for the diagnosis, Chow says. That diagnostic charge is added to the total repair estimate. In the example, if the replacing your fuel sensor costs more than $340 ($450 minus the $90 diagnostic fee), you'll get the conditional pass.

"The customer pays for the diagnostic, we send this info to get verified by the Drive Clean officer and hopefully he passes it," Chow says. "Sometimes they question it and give the techs a hard time."

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Without the specific error code from your car's computer, it's tough to predict what exactly is wrong, says Stephen Leroux, professor at Centennial College in Toronto.

"Not all vehicle emissions are emitted from the tail pipe," Leroux says. "There is a system on vehicles that is designed to monitor and control evaporative emissions – basically fuel vapours that escape the vehicle's fuel tank."

Failures up by three per cent

In 2013, Ontario's Drive Clean program stopped testing tailpipe emissions for cars built after 1997 and switched to checking for codes on the car's computer.

Because of that, failures increased. About 8 per cent of cars failed the test in 2013, the first year of the new test, up from 5 per cent in 2012, the province says.

"The old tail pipe test failed vehicles if they were emitting about four times greater than the manufacturing standard," Jordan says. "The new on-board diagnostics test fails vehicles if they are emitting about 1.5 times above the standard."

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Cars built between 1988 and 1997 still use the tailpipe test. Cars built before 1988 aren't required to be tested but police can pull older cars over if they suspect they're heavy polluters.

The test only looks at parts of your vehicle that are connected to the emissions control system, Jordan says.

When the new tests began, there were fears that up to half of vehicles would fail. Chow says that hasn't happened.

"Generally speaking, now there are a lot less failures and less repairs done to vehicles," he says. "When vehicles were on the dynamometer with the older test, cars were always failing."

No longer needed?

Ontario's Conservative government launched Drive Clean in 1999 to reduce vehicle emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, which contribute to smog. Initially, cars had to be tested once they were three years old. Now the party is calling for the program to be scrapped.

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"It was intended to be a temporary measure to reduce smog as part of a larger framework," says MPP Michael Harris (not the former premier), PC transportation critic. "It's unnecessary now because vehicles built since 1997 already has an onboard diagnostic checking your systems – if something's remiss, it triggers your check engine light and you get your vehicle tested."

At the end of this month, British Columbia is ending its AirCare emissions program. In Ontario, the low failure rate shows that Drive Clean program isn't necessary anymore, Harris says.

"It's become an illegal tax," he says.

Sierra Club Canada's executive director John Bennett says testing cars for emissions is still a good idea – but it might be time to review when and how often cars have to be tested.

"The average exhaust system lasts close to a decade now – back in the early '90s, they'd fail after two to five years," Bennett says. "A car with malfunctioning system produces a huge amount of smog precursors – so checking it every few years once it gets older makes sense."

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