Round up the smoky bandits: Enforcing vehicle emissions laws would clear the city's air overnight

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It is about halfway to work that I begin to feel the effects: a twitching in the nose, painful, itchy eyes, mucus accumulating in my bronchi. By the time I've locked the bike up it's like a dozen frogs have set up house in my throat. This summer's hot

weather lured me, in common with thousands of other Londoners, out of the Tube and back on to my bicycle. It's been great, and I can't yet bear to go back underground. Tube travel is a bore at best; going by bike is endlessly interesting. Stuck underground one nourishes dreams of escape. Up above, you begin to relish living in this town all over again. Were it not for the fumes.

The level of exhaust pollution in London is a scandal. We on bikes do not need Department of the Environment air quality alerts to tell us that, stuck behind a bus, lorry or taxi, we are being rapidly poisoned: the belching fumes are plain to see, the symptoms are palpable. Yet almost as big a scandal as the pollution is the fact that, despite a succession of deadly smogs this summer, nothing is being done to beat it.

The Government wrings its hands, issues alerts, urges people not to use cars unless necessary and generally gives a convincing display of impotence, the subtext of which is, buzz off, we're busy.

Opponents of the Government demand a radical change in the way we lead our lives. The Labour Party talks in visionary terms about a moratorium on road-building and a shift back to public transport. Friends of the Earth wants to restrict the number of cars coming into the centre of town.

But neither the Government's hand-wringing nor its opponents' vision thing offers any help in my present need: which is to do something about the black smoke, the millions of deadly particles, the carcinogenic benzene and all the other nasty things I am sucking in with every yard I pedal.

Yet there is a simple solution, one which does not require new laws or new powers, which does not demand the transformation of transport policy nor that we trade in our cars for bus passes. It would not be controversial and would be immediately effective. The answer is, simply, to enforce the law.

The permitted emission levels of vehicles are governed by European directives, and it is the law of the land that our vehicles abide by them. It is one of the things checked in the MoT test, and buses and lorries are similarly checked during their annual roadworthiness test. Every year the police randomly pull a number of buses and lorries to the side of the road for what they call 'roadside enforcement.

The way to improve the quality of air in London overnight is to make 'roadside enforcement not simply an exercise in the amassing of meaningless statistics, but the spearhead of a purposeful, targeted campaign to force drivers and operating companies to clean up their vehicles' engines.

Immense resources of manpower are expended on keeping London's streets neat and tidy, ensuring that no double yellow line is defaced by the presence of a car, that no vehicle on a meter outstays its welcome, and so on. We are accustomed, and more or less inured, to all this fussing and nannying - so much so that it may be hard to grasp that on a scale of absolute significance, the observance of parking regulations is a petty matter. If they were completely unenforced, life would carry on. Look at Milan or Rome.

But while hundreds of traffic wardens busy themselves with their trivial tasks, the antiquated, smoke-belching buses, the filthy taxis, lorries and company vans, private cars and disintegrating Nissan Sunny minicabs which are poisoning the city's air and condemning more and more Londoners to hospital treatment for respiratory conditions, go completely unchecked.

The inversion of priorities is crazy. It's like living in a household where table manners are rigidly enforced, but no one pays any attention to what goes on in the kitchen. Everything is spick and span, but unfortunately the mad cook is lacing all the dishes with arsenic and lead and mercury.

Unlike parking, the checking of emissions is a job that requires the involvement of the police. In fact, they are doing it already: around 13,000 cars nationwide were inspected for roadworthiness in the past year.

The Transport Research Laboratory is investigating a number of hand-held emission-testing devices. Once it has found one it is happy with, it would be no more complicated or controversial for the police to haul a filthy vehicle in to the kerb and bust its driver for polluting the air than to breath-test

a suspected drunk. Where commercial vehicles are involved, large exemplary fines, suitably publicised, would prompt operators to clean up their act in a hurry.

The only mystery is why such an obvious policy has not been initiated already.

(Photograph omitted)

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