15: The positioning of vehicle exhausts

A review of successive governments’ policies directly or indirectly affecting the attractions of walking as a means of transport would be likely to conclude that there must have been a malign and ingenious spirit masterminding a strategy to make it an unpleasant and unsafe way of getting about in daily life.

One has only to note the doubling of motor traffic over the last 25 years and the considerable increase in the performance of vehicles in terms of their speed and acceleration. The outcome of these apparent manifestations of economic success is that pedestrians are now more vulnerable than they were a generation ago, their relatively low average speed has been lowered still further when road crossing is involved, and they have to exercise more vigilance to reduce the risk of their involvement in what are euphemistically termed ‘accidents’.

The positioning of exhaust pipes at the rear of vehicles can be cited as a particularly effective means of reducing the attractions of walking. Anyone whether in a vehicle or on foot can carry out an observational survey of the current situation by a simple count. It will reveal that the great majority – between 80% and 90% – are located on the left-hand side. As a consequence, the toxic fumes are expelled at low level in the direction most damaging to the health of pedestrians, especially small children, those in pushchairs, and cyclists – not to mention diminishing other qualitative aspects of the local environment. The fumes also remain suspended for some time before settling, thereby increasing the period of exposure to them.

Two suggestions can be put forward to remedy this unfortunate outcome. First, and obviously, legislation could easily be passed through Parliament requiring manufacturers to fit exhaust pipes on the right-hand side of all new vehicles for the UK market. This should pose no problem for sales in countries in which vehicles are driven on the right: after all, vehicles for use here have their steering wheels on the right side – and for use on the Continent on the left side.

Second, albeit more contentiously, a strong case could be made for legislation requiring exhaust pipes to be fitted at the roof level of vehicles. This would have the advantage of ensuring that the fumes were dispersed more efficiently than releasing them at low level. At the same time, it would alert road users to the immediate toxicity of the air they were breathing and enable them better to avoid inhalation of the fumes. As they would be more visible, the general public would be more aware of this health hazard which in turn could lead to more political pressure for stricter regulations on the composition of the fumes.


Originally published in Cornucopia of Ideas: A Global Ideas Bank Compendium (eds. Nicholas Albery et al.), 2001. (A proposal to reduce pedestrian’s exposure to toxic fumes from vehicles.)

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