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December 10th, 2011:

Bad air truly a matter of life and death

SCMP Letters 10 Dec 2011

In the two years since the government finished the review of its air quality objectives, nothing has been done about it.

The government doesn’t seem to realise the health threats of Hong Kong’s poor air quality.

While doctors cannot say on a death certificate that a person was “killed by air pollutants”, it is well known among health professionals that air pollution is highly associated with fatal diseases.

Studies have shown that people in polluted areas develop respiratory symptoms more readily and people who are exposed to air pollutants for a long time die sooner than those who are not.

So how bad is the air in Hong Kong? It is not unusual for members of the public to think that air quality is of minimal significance and to consider that our present levels are normal and acceptable.

This is not true.

The air quality objectives have not been updated since 1987, and yet it is this standard that the government uses to assess the extent of air pollution, monitor projects and approve new ones.

The outdated standards are extremely lax compared with the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines.

Do we not deserve better air to breathe? It is time for the government to face the challenge. No more vague emission control proposals, no more uncertain time frames, no more excuses for negligence.

We can all make a difference by expressing our concerns and urging the government to take action promptly. We all deserve a breath of fresh air.

Wincy Ng Wing-sze, Pok Fu Lam

Idling ban up, running but going nowhere fast

South China Morning Post – Dec. 10, 2011

For first month of new law, wardens and environment officers will take softly-softly approach and issue warnings rather than hand out tickets

Law enforcement officers will adopt a lenient approach in the first month of the ban on idling engines, with verbal warnings given first before offenders are handed any HK$320 fixed-penalty tickets, environment officials said yesterday.

Up to 280 traffic wardens in uniform and 400 inspectors from the Environmental Protection Department will have the additional duty of enforcing the ban when it comes into force next Thursday.

Idling hot spots, including Causeway Bay and school areas, may be specifically targeted, while private car parks are a lower priority because enforcement will require prior consent from the property owners.

The public can file complaints to the department on suspected breaches.

The government drew up a draft ban in 2007, some six years after it was first proposed. But after negotiations with the transport industry, the resulting legislation passed in March represented a much toned-down version, with a series of exemptions.

The original ban covered all vehicles and roads all-year. It offered no grace period, no exemptions in extreme weather and excluded only the first two taxis waiting at a rank.

Now, all taxis at a taxi stand are exempt, as are the first two minibuses at stands. Drivers will also be allowed to idle their engines on days when the Observatory issues hot weather and rainstorm warnings.

Breaching the ban will attract a fixed penalty of HK$320. However, in the first month of the ban, an offender will initially be verbally warned. A ticket will be issued only if the offender ignores the warning.

From the second month, officers will be less tolerant. Drivers who dispute the enforcement can seek a court review.

Officials hope the ban will make drivers change their behaviour as they realise the benefits to be made from saving fuel.

Mok Wai-chuen, assistant director of environmental protection, said officers would first identify if a vehicle is idling by listening to the sounds, checking the engine vibration and looking at the parking meters. They will also make sure the vehicles is not subject to exemptions before they start counting the three minutes.

“Officers will not hide themselves from the drivers and vehicles and count the time as they have to complete the pre-counting checks,” he said, adding the officers will carefully record the location and time, as well as the information of the vehicles and drivers.

It is expected that most drivers will turn off their engines when they see the officers.

Drivers are also reminded that they are only given an aggregate of three minutes exemption in any one-hour period, even if they drive their vehicles to a different location within this period. Beyond the three minutes, drivers will be prosecuted.

If a driver continues to idle their vehicle, officers have the power to issue more penalty tickets.

Mok said a driver could not evade the engine-idling ban by switching cars or seats with someone as officers should have little problem recognising the driver and vehicle in question.

“If we find a car idling without a driver, we will wait until the driver comes back. If he or she doesn’t, police assistance will be sought,” he said.

Hung Cheung-yau, chairman of Hong Kong Traffic Wardens’ Union, said it was hard to tell if the ban would lead to more disputes with drivers.

“It is like issuing illegal parking tickets. Some disputes are inevitable. But we are used to it,” he said.

Hung said traffic wardens only assumed a complementary role in enforcing the ban. “We will deliver our primary duties like traffic control before we have time for the ban.”


Scope of the idling engine ban

It covers all vehicles, except electric or hybrid vehicles in electric mode; all year round on all roads, including private roads and car parks

Drivers will be exempted under the following conditions

1. Any idling for no more than three minutes in a continuous 60-minute period

2. All day when the very hot weather warning, or amber, red or black rainstorm warnings are issued

3. Idling due to traffic congestion, like queuing at a petrol station or car park, or an accident

4. Idling due to mechanical problems

5. Boarding or alighting of a passenger

Other exemptions

1. Taxis at taxi stand

2. First two red or green minibuses at bus stand

3. Any red minibus with any passenger on board, and the minibus immediately behind it

4. Private school light bus or coach with any passenger on board

5. Franchise bus with any passenger on board or ready for boarding

6. Vehicles of 12 medical, emergency or law enforcement bodies

7. Vehicles carrying live animals for public health protection or other operational activities

8. Security vehicles operated by licensed parties

9. PLA Garrison vehicles on operations or training

10. Any vehicle requiring idling to perform a purpose it is designed for (eg operating the tail board of a truck, or refuse collection vehicles)

Who will enforce the ban

Traffic wardens and inspectors from the Environmental Protection Department


Fixed fine of HK$320 (more than one ticket can be issued if driver refuses to switch off engine for subsequent three-minute periods)