The Environmental Working Group has just launched a campaign highlighting the relationship between driving and asthma.
Similar to the blog I wrote a month ago, the report calls on readers to consider smog "not as an environmental problem but as a health crisis that directly harms 20 million Americans, with children the most at risk." [emphasis in original]
The relationship between smog and asthma is confirmed by hundreds of studies worldwide. During the 1996 Summer Olympics, the city of Atlanta, fearing gridlock, took extraordinary measures to reduce traffic. For the 17 days of the games, auto use dropped 22.5 percent. Daily ozone concentrations dropped almost 30 percent. The benefit to asthma sufferers was direct and dramatic. During that period, the number of asthmatics who saw a doctor dropped by 40 percent, the number admitted to the hospital dropped 19 percent, and the number who went to the emergency room dropped 11 percent.
The report pounds home the correlation between the vehicle you choose to drive and its direct, measurable effects on people's health. For example, the dirtiest new vehicles - large SUVs and light trucks - produce 30 times more smog-causing air pollution than the cleanest new vehicles - hybrid sedans and hatchbacks.
The report empasises encouraging consumers to make better choices when buying cars, and this is a laudable goal, but ultimately, the shape of the automobile market will not change much until citizens can muster the political will to demand changes to the ways the auto industry are regulated.
That means higher average fleet fuel economy and higher gas prices (i.e. no more subsidies). For those who might accuse me of being anti-business, consider that the most profitable car companies in the world today are those companies that have the highest average fuel economy. Building better cars is better business.
The other piece of the air quality puzzle is land use. As long as sprawl continues to dominate the construction of our built environment, driving will continue to dominate our transportation system. Without aggressive infill development, use mixing, and protection of rural land, the benefits of cleaner cars will continue to be offset by more people driving longer distances.
Ultimately, these structural changes will take years, if not decades, to implement fully. In the meantime, I still believe we need to restrict driving on smog days. As the report cited above from Atlanta demonstrates, taking cars off the road on smog days makes a measurable difference in the health outcomes of people at risk for respiratory illness.
I've discussed this idea with several people, and many have suggested that it makes more sense to issue the restriction the day before an expected smog day so it has time to make a difference. Fortunately, Environment Canada is pretty good at modeling air quality over the short term, so this should not be a major obstacle.
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