19th December 2016
Are the latest pollution-busting recommendations merely NICE but implausible?
There’s no denying that air pollution is a massive issue in the UK, highlighted recently by the High Court ruling that the government has broken the law by its failure to address illegal NO2 levels with any urgency1. London’s ‘toxic air’, said to be responsible for over 9,000 deaths per year in the capital, has long been and continues to be fiercely debated in the Commons2.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) points to road traffic causing two-thirds of air pollution in built-up areas, citing that harmful emissions directly or indirectly contribute to approximately 25,000 deaths each year in England, and says the overall impact on health costs the UK over £18 billion3.
NICE has published draft recommendations on how to tackle air pollution, with many of them aimed at motorists – and although they’re not legally binding, they hope some or all the measures will be adopted.
Calling on commercial and public sector fleet managers to better educate their drivers on how to drive more smoothly and efficiently is certainly something we would welcome, as hard acceleration and deceleration are indeed more polluting and also sometimes more dangerous. Fleets that use a telematics system such as Appy Fleet, which encourages smoother driving, also typically enjoy their vehicles remaining in better mechanical condition for longer.
Warning against the risks of unnecessary engine-idling is definitely a commendable recommendation, with so many drivers guilty of this bad practice, from van and bus drivers and company car drivers leaving the engine running while they program their sat nav, make a phone call or down a latte, to school run parents sat idling while waiting for their kids. In fact, NICE’s full report4 proposes bylaws to prevent vehicles idling outside schools, hospitals and other public places, which would also ease congestion in such areas.
Roads within the proximity of schools are often peppered with speed bumps, which is another area addressed by the body’s paper, which states that “evidence on traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps suggested that these may increase emissions by adding to decelerations and accelerations”. NICE recommends that speed humps and bumps need to be resigned to minimise this counter-productive and polluting driving style, or removed altogether in some cases – which would definitely be music to the ears of many motorists.
Speed cushions5 are far less damaging to vehicles than full-width bumps or the yellow and black ramps found in many supermarket car parks, and such cushions still cause drivers to slow down but without leading some vehicles to slam on their brakes through fear of scraping their underbellies.
NICE also brings up the perennial debate over whether the UK’s longstanding motorway speed limit should be changed, the Institute advocating the widespread introduction of variable and 50mph speed limits throughout England and Wales6. They feel that forcing vehicles to drive at a more consistent speed will reduce congestion and also bring down air pollution, which is exacerbated by drivers slowing down and speeding up. However, at a time when numerous stretches of motorways are struggling whilst smart motorway upgrades take place involving 50mph restrictions through roadworks, NICE’s desire to see more motorists driving at 50 or 60mph flies in the face of popular sentiment.
The Alliance of British Drivers7 is just one of many voices speaking out in favour of an 80mph motorway speed limit, or perhaps even no limit at all, in a day and age when cars and roads are generally much safer and the UK economy needs all the help it can get. The current 70mph limit is “preventing the full economic benefits being achieved from the nation’s investment in a high-standard motorway network”, comments the Hugh Bladon from the Alliance, and the Chancellor Philip Hammond has indicated his support for it to be increased.
We can appreciate why road safety charities such as Brake are opposed to the limit, but lessons can surely be learned from Germany8, which has a lower road fatality rate than the US despite many stretches of its autobahn network remaining unrestricted. The Germans still impose speed limits near junctions and along more testing roads, though, and they both invest more money into road maintenance and teach learners how to drive on autobahns from an early stage.
NICE’s recommendations are primarily aimed at tackling the UK’s air pollution crisis rather than making roads safer, and while legislation preventing idling would be a positive move, along with remodelling or removing a large proportion of speed bumps, any further slowing-down of the motorway network would grate on businesses and private motorists. The body’s suggestion for more speed cameras to be introduced will also vex many drivers who already feel harangued enough.
Perhaps a more beneficial strategy would be for the government to push electric vehicles even more ardently. Yes, it would likely prove fiscally costly in the short term, but the benefits to public health and the fending off of European courts would surely be worth it in the longer term. Combined with ‘clean air zones’ likely being introduced in cities such as Birmingham by as soon as 2018 in a bid to reduce the number of diesel vehicles on the roads, the tide will hopefully start to turn.
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