Paris limits drivers to alternate days in bid to solve pollution crisis

Drivers restricted to using roads every other day as French capital hit by pollution particulates in air exceeding safe levels for five days running

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 5:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 6:08pm

The French government will today introduce alternate driving days in Paris for the first time in nearly two decades to tackle dangerous levels of air pollution.

It is only the second time the French authorities have ever resorted to the drastic restriction, which means that drivers will only be able to use their cars on alternate days.

The government made the announcement after pollution particulates in the air exceeded safe levels for five consecutive days in and around the capital.

All public transport was made free over the weekend to persuade residents not to drive.

Emergency departments are full of people with breathing problems
Nadir Saifi, Ecology Without Borders

By Saturday the number of pollution particulates in the air had fallen slightly after hitting a high of 180 microgrammes per cubic metre - well over double the safe limit - on Friday.

These so-called PM10 particulates are created by vehicles, heating and heavy industry, with the safe limit set at 80 per cubic metre.

But with pollution levels forecast to rise, the prime minister's office announced it would restrict drivers in the capital for the first time since 1997.

Motorbikes are also bound by the restriction, which only permits vehicles with uneven numbered plates on the road today.

Authorities in Beijing have tried alternate driving days with varying degrees of success.

The French government also unveiled other pollution-lowering measures, including restrictions on vehicle speed and on burning fuel.

The smoggy conditions have been caused by a combination of cold nights and warm days, which have prevented pollution from dispersing.

"While the current levels in Europe do pose a significant risk to health, peak levels can be up to four to five times higher in Asian cities like Beijing," an EEA spokesman said. "Nevertheless, the levels of PM pollution encountered in the currently affected European regions would also be classified as pollution episodes in Asian cities."

The pollution particulates in the air can cause asthma attacks as well as respiratory and heart problems. The World Health Organisation has said finer particulates - known as PM2.5 - are cancer-causing.

Automobile associations criticised the restrictions as "stupid".

"I am amazed to see that a small lobby has managed to convince people that cars were behind this peak in pollution," said Pierre Chasseray, head of a drivers' association called 40 Millions d'Automobilistes. "This measure is worse than unfair, it is stupid."

Three environmental groups last week filed a lawsuit "against x" - where the person or body deemed responsible is difficult to ascertain - for "endangering the lives of others".

"We know pollution causes deaths. Emergency departments are full of people with breathing problems," said Nadir Saifi of Ecology Without Borders, one of the groups filing the suit.

Warnings from authorities to avoid physical exertion did not deter Parisians from enjoying the warm weather, however.

"My lungs are already polluted by cigarettes, so I don't really care," Sophie Boisseau, 29, said at the terrace of the Biscornu cafe near the stock exchange in central Paris.

Additional reporting by Reuters