Giving in to drivers may be only way to ban idling
The good news is that the government will finally press ahead with introducing a ban on idling engines. The bad news is that the draft ban will be significantly watered down by the time it is presented to lawmakers later this month. Under pressure from the public-transport trade, the government has devised complicated rules that will exempt more taxis and minibuses queuing to pick up customers. The rules are likely to make the law more difficult to enforce when it comes into effect.
A ban is long overdue. Leaving a vehicle engine idling not only causes pollution, but is also an annoying form of antisocial behaviour. A consultation last year showed the public overwhelmingly supports such a ban. But taxi and minibus drivers have vehemently opposed it, citing several reasons, some of them arguable, others spurious. Still, the government has promised to have legislation in place this year. Given the general public's wish to see a ban introduced without delay, the latest compromises with the trade may be the only expeditious way forward.
The government had originally proposed that only the first two taxis in a queue be allowed to keep their engines running. Under the revised proposal, the first five would be allowed to do so. And if the queue is moving, every waiting taxi would be able to keep its engine on. Unless they are in long queues which move little - like those at the airport - most drivers waiting in line in urban areas would be able to claim they are in a moving queue. Similarly contrived rules will apply to minibuses. For example, green-top minibuses often wait in one queue but serve different destinations. The new rule would allow the first and second minibuses travelling on the same route to keep their engines on, regardless of their places in the queue.
Without going into all the details, it is easy to see that police officers and traffic wardens would face a tough time handing out tickets. Traffic conditions are fluid, especially in a city like Hong Kong; vehicles in queues are constantly moving. Often, minibuses switch places while waiting at stops. Some stops are busier than others; and conditions can vary greatly at the same stop during different times of day.
The trade probably wants these rules in place because they will make enforcing the new law difficult. If so, it is to be regretted that professional drivers cannot be more public-spirited. Understandably, they face declining business in the current downturn. But the ban will not affect their livelihood. At most, it will cause inconvenience, such as not being able to cool themselves with air conditioning.
It is now clear the city will not have the toughest ban many people were hoping for. However, breaches of the new law would carry a substantial fine of HK$320, so it does not lack teeth. It should still serve as a serious deterrent and have an educational effect on drivers and pedestrians alike. Even if police officers may be hamstrung, they can cite the law and warn drivers - professional and private - to operate their vehicles more responsibly.
Despite the new steps taken to placate the trade, some representatives of the taxi trade still oppose the revised proposal. It is unlikely anything can be done to satisfy these people short of dropping the legislation altogether. Let us hope officials will stand firm from this point on and move ahead to impose the ban. The discomfort drivers will suffer from not having air conditioning will be small relative to the serious impact on pedestrians' health from their vehicles' roadside emissions.