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Leuenberger green-lights lower speed limits

Several politicians have called for the speed limit on motorways to be lowered to 80km/h Keystone

Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger has recommended that cantons reduce speed limits in urban areas to combat rising levels of air pollution.

This content was published on February 2, 2006 - 21:17

Switzerland's reputation for clinical cleanliness has taken a battering recently from record levels of fine dust particles, which have prompted calls for immediate measures.

Leuenberger said on Thursday that efforts needed to be focused on towns and cities where pollution was likely to cause most harm.

Cantons can reduce speed limits for up to eight days but Leuenberger says he wants them to be free to extend this. He aims to hold talks with the cantons by the end of next week.

But Leuenberger warned that reducing speed limits was only part of the solution, adding that it would be more effective to ban big polluters such as diesel vehicles without particle filters.

Speed limits

Dorothée Fierz, a member of the Zurich cantonal government, proposed cutting the speed limit on motorways across the country from 120kmh to 80kmh.

"This measure has widespread acceptance and would have a major impact," she said. "Regional measures have little effect."

Leuenberger acknowledged that reducing the speed limit would only curb emissions of dust particles in the short-term. For a long-term solution, he referred to the action plan and accompanying measures which he proposed on January 16.

They include tax breaks for low-emission vehicles and tighter restrictions on the country's 5,000 large wood burners.

On Thursday the level of fine dust particles in Lausanne measured 240 micrograms per cubic metre – almost five times the permitted level.

In Bern the limit has been exceeded 21 times this year and in Zurich 18 times. The air purity law, which has been in force since 1998, states that the permitted level should be exceeded only once a year.

Second wind

Evi Allemann, a parliamentarian from the Social Democratic Party, called for warnings – similar to those on cigarette packets – to be stuck on non-diesel cars, car advertisements and petrol stations saying: "Cars can seriously damage the environment and your health."

"Unconventional approaches are often needed to sensitise people," she said. "Drivers' awareness must be raised. Ultimately they are damaging the climate and our health."

Allemann submitted a similar motion to the House of Representatives in December but it mostly fell on deaf ears. She now believes however that the recent pollution debate has given her idea new momentum.

"Politicians are slowly opening their eyes, as are the public," she said. "The stir this is creating will grow and grow."

Brave decisions

Otto Piller, president of the Swiss Lung League, backed calls for sustainable measures against fine particle air pollution.

"The technical means to improve air quality have existed for years, but they haven't been used," the former Social Democratic Senator said.

Piller added that a reduction in the speed limit on motorways would help but wasn't a lasting solution. He backed the introduction of obligatory particle filters for all new diesel vehicles.

"Some brave decisions must now be taken to avoid a repetition of the current situation," he said. "Mothers with children are already being advised to stay indoors during the day – that's unbelievable."

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

In brief

Dust particle emissions regularly exceed the permitted limits in most EU countries. One EU guideline envisages driving bans in inner cities if limits are exceeded.

In 2003 the congestion charge in London resulted in 18% less traffic and 12% less dust.

The Swiss environment agency says 21,000 tons of fine dust are emitted in Switzerland every year.

56% comes from the private and public use of mechanical abrasion. The rest comes from diesel motors (17%), wood burning (15%), other burning (10%) and petrol, natural gas and natural oil (2%).

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Key facts

The Federal Environment Office estimates that three million people in Switzerland – more than 40% of the population – live in regions which record above-average fine particle levels.
The permitted level of fine dust particles in Switzerland and the EU is 50 micrograms per cubic metre, a third of the level in the US.
The federal authorities say dust particles cause 3,700 premature deaths a year in Switzerland and annual extra health costs of SFr4.2 billion ($3.4 billion).

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