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Law has become an idling curiosity

South China Morning Post – Dec. 15, 2011

For those who regularly have to put up with exhaust fumes emitted by stationary vehicles, there is finally some good news. After a wait of 14 years, the ban on idling engine comes into force today. But it is much too early to feel we can take a deep breath with confidence. It is unlikely that this law will make much of an impact on roadside pollution.

An array of exemptions and a delay in its enforcement to get around our city’s hottest season have already weakened public confidence in the law. Some critics have rightly questioned whether the ban will make any difference at all. To ensure the law means what it says, strict enforcement is therefore essential.

Up to 280 traffic wardens in uniform and 400 inspectors from the Environmental Protection Department will be looking out for vehicles parked with running engines. Hot spots like Causeway Bay and school areas will be the prime targets. But drivers have been assured that for the first month the fixed penalty of HK$320 will only be issued if verbal warnings are ignored. Understandably, the government wants to ease in the law without creating disputes. As drivers become more familiar with the scope of the ban, zero tolerance is needed to show the government’s determination in enforcement.

The real challenge, however, comes from the difficulties in policing a law that grants far too many exemptions. For instance, drivers have three minutes’ grace every hour. Taxis at ranks, buses and school vans that contain passengers are also exempt. The ban is even put aside during rainstorm and hot weather warnings. Confusion and disputes are therefore inevitable. There are already discussions about how drivers might get around the law.

The ban on idling engines is long overdue. Now that it is finally put into force, it is important to get it right. The law will become meaningless if enforcement is only half-hearted. The government should assess the impact of the ban and review the penalty and the scope of exemptions in light of experience.

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