When the idling engine ban was finally passed in March last year, there were queries whether the dozens of exemptions would render the law too weak to combat roadside air pollution. Eighteen months later, we do not see any major improvements in air quality. A walk in the street still finds drivers defying the law. The air we breathe remains as foul as before. Our worries about the legislation being a toothless tiger appear to be well founded.
It is troubling to learn that the ban has not been enforced most of the time this summer when it is most needed. The days with hot weather and rainstorm warnings, during which drivers are allowed to ignore the ban, added up to 40 days in July and August. Coincidentally, roadside air quality was also at its worst levels, with the index reaching 212 in Central on August 2, the highest yet since the city was hit by sandstorms from the mainland two years ago.
Even when the ban was on during the rest of the month, enforcement remained slack. We have been told that drivers who leave their engines running will only be warned verbally, initially. The tolerant approach is understandable. The drivers should be given enough time to adapt.
However, the ban is still not being taken seriously. So far, only two drivers have been fined. Questions must be asked about whether drivers have become law-abiding or whether officers have turned a blind eye. The HK$450 penalty ticket, just a third of the fine for littering, is also way too low to deter infringement. The exemptions and slack enforcement have made a mockery of the efforts to curb pollution.
Legislation is meaningless if it is not properly enforced. It is ironic that a law which sets out to improve air quality has effectively become a licence to pollute. The experience has shown that there is much room for improvement. Officials should seriously review the scope of the exemptions and the penalty to ensure the ban can achieve its goal.