A plan to ban idling vehicle engines by mid-2009 has drawn fire from public transport groups, including taxi and minibus operators, but was hailed by conservationists as a major step in the battle against worsening air pollution in the territory.
The government on Friday launched a five-month public consultation exercise on the proposal which would impose a fixed penalty of HK$320 on offenders, with taxi and minibus drivers likely to bear the brunt of the ban.
Government sources, however, admitted there is a gray area in enforcing the legislation as it is difficult to determine whether passengers are boarding or alighting from vehicles at any one time.
The sources also admitted that the statutory ban will only have a very minimal effect on reducing emissions.
Under the proposals, drivers would have to switch off their engines when they stop their vehicles, no matter how long they wait - unlike in other countries where drivers are allowed to switch off their engines about three or five minutes after they have stopped their vehicles.
The ban would be imposed territory- wide regardless of the locality or time.
However, there would be exemptions for certain vehicles, such as those which stop for active boarding or alighting, the first two taxis or minibuses at a public stand, security transit vehicles and those which have to keep the engine running for ancillary purposes, including lorry cranes and mobile concrete pumps.
Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said vehicles are the second-largest source of air pollution in Hong Kong.
"We really hope to reduce emissions by idling engines," he said.
Yau said the government is forced to act because motorists have failed to switch off engines while waiting despite many past campaign to get them to do so.
He said the number of complaints against idling vehicles had doubled - from 238 in 2002 to 501 last year.
Asked about the unsuitability of a ban in hot weather, Yau said motorists could choose to drive around instead.
Traffic wardens and Environmental Protection Department staff would enforce the ban. Sources said exemptions will be restricted.
The Motor Transport Workers Ge- neral Union criticised the plan, saying it would result in more pollution.
Taxi and Public Light Bus Concern Group chairman Lai Ming-hung called the proposed ban a big nuisance. He suggested the first seven taxis or minibuses in a queue be exempted from the ban instead of just the first two.
"Otherwise, drivers following the first two will be forced to switch off and restart their vehicles repeatedly, seriously harming the parts and increase our operating costs," Lai said.
Conservancy Association campaign manager Peter Li Siu-man, while welcoming the move, said it will not help improve overall air quality as the top sources of pollution are power plants and factories in the Pearl River Delta.
Chairwoman Betty Ho described the plan as "timely, especially in the face of worsening quality of living."
"In 2001, the public were less concerned about the environment. But, now more people have first-hand daily experience of worsening air quality - no autumn and no blue sky," Ho said.
Taxi driver Ko Kwok-cheong said he will be forced to stay inside his vehicle in the summer.
He warned that air quality will worsen if taxi drivers are forced to switch off and restart their engines repeatedly.