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The uphill battle to curb idling engines

South China Morning Post — 23 Sept. 2011

We have been waiting far too long for a law on idling engines. What should have been a relatively simple step in the battle against air pollution has been debated for 14 years. Now, legislation is finally on the way. But the law to take effect in December will have far too many exemptions and it will be difficult to enforce. There is good reason to doubt whether it will really make a difference.

The need for an effective law was highlighted by this newspaper’s recent testing of pollution levels at idling engine hot spots such as taxi stands and minibus stops. The carbon monoxide measurements recorded with a hand-held device on a single day last month are, of course, neither comprehensive nor conclusive. But they do provide an indication of the higher levels of air pollution we have to endure in places where there are many engines idling.

A carbon monoxide reading of 23,000 micrograms per cubic metre of air, was recorded on a stretch of Mong Kok’s Tung Choi Street lined by dozens of idling minibuses. That was 10 times the level of a nearby road with flowing traffic and no idling vehicles, and 30 times more than the reading at the district’s air quality monitoring station. At a minibus terminus in Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay, the temperature was 38 degrees Celsius, five higher than at the Observatory. More research is needed, but it is clear that idling engines have a significant impact and the new law must be effective if it is to have any meaning at all.

Legislators’ approval of the law in March followed much wrangling with transport interest groups. The proposals have been watered down so much that we appear to have lost sight of the objective – to curb the idling of engines by motorists. Among the 20 exemptions are taxis at ranks, buses and school vans that contain passengers, and all vehicles when the weather is particularly hot or wet. Drivers will have three minutes grace every hour. Enforcing this law is not going to be easy. It will be interesting to see if this law can really be enforced. The HK$320 penalty, less than for littering, is not much of a deterrent anyway.

The 260 wardens who police traffic will have watching out for idling engine offenders added to their duties. They will be joined by just 18 specially-trained officers. A weak law and inadequate enforcement add up to minimal change in roadside air pollution readings.

Officials, some of whom walked to work to mark No Car Day yesterday, have touted the law as a significant step in our city’s fight against air pollution, but its value is more symbolic. That need not be the case, though, if enforcement of the law is coupled with close monitoring, a thorough assessment of its impact and a determination to get it right.

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