Smoking Guns and Tailpipes

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Montreal, Canada.

Automobile emissions are the environmental equivalent to chain smoking in the home.

There are some interesting things in the air, especially for those who breath. Toronto has banned smoking in restaurants. Ottawa is moving to seriously restrict tobacco sponsorship of events.

But federal Environment Minister Sergio Marchi’s comments on Monday left us breathless. “Automobile emissions are the environmental equivalent of chain smoking in the home. It hurts everybody in the house whether they smoke or not.We all have to breathe. But on all too many days the air that usually gives us life makes us and our children sick – or worse.”

Worse means dead. A recent report from Health Canada figures that each year as many as 1,800 Ontarians die prematurely due to poor air quality. And one quarter of the smog in the province and half the smog in Toronto comes from car and truck tailpipes. So thousands die each year across the country thanks to car exhaust. Thousands more are killed in crashes. Talk about a smoking gun.

With such catastrophic yet avoidable figures, was Marchi to announce a bold program to phase cars out of all city centres? Did he embark on a “crash” program to require every internal-combustion engine to sport a sticker saying: “This vehicle can be extremely dangerous to self, family, and community. Avoid use.”

We thought he might announce that the hidden costs of cars paid by driver and non-driver alike were to be exposed. Would gasoline prices double in order for car drivers to begin paying for their share of health care, accident, policing and other costs?

Not quite. Minister Marchi committed the government to some cleaning up of gasoline and of cars, thereby making them less noxious. He tried to prod Ontario and Quebec to follow British Columbia’s lead and institute a mandatory vehicle emission testing program. He mandated cutting the amount of benzene in gasoline, a known carcinogen, by half. Still, 3,000 tonnes annually will go out the tailpipes and into Canada’s atmosphere, much of it into our lungs.

“Cars and trucks are the single leading source of air pollution in this country – indeed, on this continent,” he said. And starting to clean up their act could save our health care system $1 billion or more per year, according to his ministry. Each one of the more than 14 million automobiles on the roads in Canada spews out some four or five tonnes of pollutants every year.

Tinkering with tailpipes has been the major approach taken by western governments (and the corporations) over the last few decades to try to address the car’s toxicity. Cars are now cleaner, but there are way more of them, and each is being driven way further. So the atmosphere and our health continue to deteriorate.

The minister should be encouraging less driving. In the U.S. there is federal financial support for cities to improve public transit systems, to build bicycle paths and to install bicycle parking. There is a growing movement to contain urban sprawl, and build compact communities where one can walk or bike to the store, the library, and even to work. It’s time for the minister to get serious, and recognize, as the British parliament has recently done, that the best approach is to aim to reduce the amount of traffic and distance travelled. Minister Marchi should set some car reduction targets now.

If he’s looking for money to do it, he could take a page from the anti-smoking movement. Twenty-one American states and a bunch of lawyers are trying to settle with the cigarette companies for $350 billion to recoup the billions of tax dollars spent treating smoking-related illnesses. Someone should do the math on what the car companies owe us.

The insurance companies are starting to figure out that there are savings when cars are controlled. They commissioned a report recently in British Columbia that concluded that traffic calming measures like traffic circles, speed humps, and stop signs reduce crashes, injuries and save lives. The costs of such measures would be offset through reduced claims in just six months. Now that’s a good investment.

My Mom tells me of a more direct approach to stopping cars and drivers. She heard on the news how some baboons in South Africa had been throwing rocks from an overpass onto passing cars. Maybe the animals, who suffer such massive death and destruction from cars, are starting to fight back.

We humans pride ourselves as being more intelligent and sophisticated than animals. Maybe so. But do we have the drive needed to protect us from our own creations?


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