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Is reducing air pollution putting our safety at risk?

By Josh Elliott
News entry dated 09th Aug 2017

The Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health warn that air pollution may be responsible for as many as 40,000 early deaths every year in the UK alone. Such findings have prompted the EU to set air pollution standards and to hold member countries accountable for meeting them.

The UK has, after a protracted tangle with the EU over the matter, finally issued its draft UK Air Quality Plan. The plan includes a number of measures to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide in our air. According to the plan, UK air quality has improved significantly over the past several decades, but more needs to be done. However, are some of the proposals playing down road safety concerns?

(Credit – Greg Westfall)

At what cost, cleaner air?

One of the measures in the government’s plan is the removal of speed bumps. Speed bumps are (clearly) introduced to make us drive more slowly. However, the majority of drivers speed up after each bump, then hit the brakes as they approach the next one. This pattern of surging from bump to bump elevates pollution levels. Thus the government has said it will provide funding for English councils that wish to remove speed bumps.

Unfortunately, such a blanket offer seems to ignore the fact that speed bumps in many areas have been introduced as a road safety measure, in order to reduce the speed of traffic near schools, for example. Are we thus pursuing a reduction in air pollution deaths at the expense of increased risk to our young people?

Campaigners such as those from Living Streets argue that removing speed bumps without replacing them with alternative traffic calming measures could actually increase air pollution levels. By making the school route more dangerous to walk, they argue that many parents will opt to drive instead, thus having the opposite effect than the draft air quality plan intends: more dangerous, more polluted local roads.

Are air pollution tunnels the answer?

Since the government announced the draft UK Air Quality Plan, there’s been a great deal of discussion around whether covering motorways with air pollution tunnels could help to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels.

The concept has been inspired by the trial of wooden boards placed along the M62 near Simister, Greater Manchester. The £2.5 million scheme saw boards measuring 4 metres high running along a 100 metre stretch of the motorway, on either side of the road. The boards were later increased to 6 meters in height.

That trial led to a further board-based trial, in which the boards were coated with a nitrogen dioxide-absorbing polymer. While the outcome of that trial is awaited, the results of similar experiments in other countries have certainly been promising.

(Credit – Sean MacEntee)

Will cost prove to be a barrier?

As well as analysing the barrier trial results, Highways England is also looking into another kind of barrier – cost. It is examining the potential cost of canopies over UK motorways to see how feasible it is to “reduce the costs to construct a canopy, which is a tunnel-like structure designed to prevent vehicle emissions reaching our neighbours, to make this a viable solution.”

A Highways England spokesperson commented,

“The best solution to accommodating the extra traffic on our roads, without negatively impacting on air quality, is cleaner low-emission vehicles. In the meantime we are investing £100 million to test new ideas including less-polluting fuels and road barriers which can absorb harmful emissions.”

The future of cleaner motoring will no doubt involve a blend of all of these ideas, along with other, innovative solutions such as the recently announced Sion from Sono Motors – an electric car with built in solar panels. Highways England’s air quality strategy lays out how it will spend the £100 million. With the UK government and local councils all looking at the issue too, it will be interesting to see the range of measures introduced to clean up our air over the months and years ahead.

Do anti-air pollution measures take enough account of road safety concerns? Are tunnels over our motorways the answer? Leave your comments down below to let us know your views. 

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