Auto pollution icon for air quality story

3 strategies to curb auto pollution

March 16, 2016

Today, 45 million Americans go to school, work, or live within 300 feet of a major roadway, railroad, or airport. For these millions, there’s a growing concern about the quality of air they’re breathing. Research overwhelmingly shows that cars and trains create dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and fine particulate matter.

Short and long-term exposure to these and other traffic pollutants has been linked to increased risk of asthma, stroke, lung cancer, and other diseases. In fact, in the United States alone, vehicle pollution contributes to some 53,000 premature deaths each year. So officials are drafting policies and laws to decrease auto emissions. These three strategies could help keep our our roadways (and airways) clear:

Idling Restrictions

The average American car idles for 16 minutes each day. That may not seem like much, but consider this: Idling vehicles in the U.S. pump 93 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (or 1.6 percent of total domestic emissions) into the atmosphere every year.

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Over the past few decades, more than 20 states have passed anti-idling laws that fine drivers who leave their engine running while their car is stopped at any location for more than five minutes. In New Jersey, for example, investigators from the state Department of Environmental Protection Agency and the police can ticket passenger and commercial vehicles from $1,000 to $2,500, depending on where the vehicle is and whether or not it’s incurred prior idling tickets. In 2008 and 2009, Boston authorities fined a bus company and a waste hauling company nearly $1 million for leaving multiple vehicles idling in company parking facilities. And more recently, the city of London has placed digital signs at the Tower Bridge asking drivers to shut off their engines when the drawbridge is raised.

Vehicle Limitations

In cities experiencing air pollution crises, officials are taking more-direct action than just cracking down on idling cars. In New Delhi, which was recently announced as the most-polluted city in the world, officials instituted a plan earlier this year that removed half of the city’s private vehicles from the road. Cars with even- and odd-numbered license plates were only allowed in the city on alternate days. The regulation, referred to as “car rationing,” has since been lifted, but early data showed that fine particulate matter levels fell by 10 percent in its first week. A similar even-odd scheme has been implemented in Beijing since 2008, when the city hosted the Olympics. There, air pollution decreases 21 percent on the intermittent days when rationing is active.

Sharper Emissions Monitoring

Research shows that 25 percent of cars, mostly old vehicles or ones rigged to trick inspectors, account for 90 percent of all air pollution. American officials are grappling with strategies to identify drivers and even automakers who tamper with their cars to cheat federal and state emission tests. One idea they’re testing is a roadside sensor that can determine an individual vehicle’s emissions based on its exhaust. Officials could use the sensor to flag scofflaw vehicles for an urgent inspection.

Across the pond, in Birmingham, England, trials are underway to test a similar sensor. The system is one way to identify serial polluters, and one day it could include a camera to snap offending license plates as they pass.

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