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Idling engine law has all but stalled

SCMP – 19 June 2012

Legislation that is enacted but not enforced is nothing more than meaningless text on the statute books. It is even more absurd when weak legislation continues to be watered down unnoticed after its passage into law. A case in point is the much-criticised law against idling engines, which seeks to combat roadside air pollution. After 14 years of negotiations, the law finally came into force six months ago. But slack enforcement and an array of exemptions still leave a lot to be desired. To ease the impact of the ban, the government issued only verbal warnings in the first month. However, despite 180 spot check operations over the past few months, no penalty ticket has been issued so far. Questions have to be asked whether all drivers have suddenly turned green or whether enforcement has been slack. Indeed, the public could be excused for wondering whether the government is determined to punish drivers who leave the engines of stationary vehicles running.

More disturbingly, as this newspaper has reported, the director of environmental protection last month exercised her discretionary power to exempt 200 vehicles operated by welfare agencies to carry the elderly or operate as mobile clinics. This is in addition to more than a dozen exemptions already passed by the legislature last summer. The approval for this was gazetted without publicity and explained only when asked by our reporter.

Any exemption is effectively a licence to pollute. That is why it should be exercised with great caution. It is disappointing that the official who is supposed to act like a guardian for a clean environment has quietly exercised her power without public scrutiny. The need for more transparency and accountability is evident.

The hot season is putting the law to the test. The tolerant approach over past six months has given drivers more than enough time to get used to the new rules. It is time for enforcers to act tough. Every effort must be made to show the ban on idling engines is not just a cosmetic exercise in the fight against air pollution.

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