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From speed restrictions to bans on older cars - how France is battling pollution wave


From speed restrictions to bans on older cars - how France is battling pollution wave

Last week air pollution took centre stage in France, as Paris and other cities including Lyon, took measures to combat hazardous air quality.

One action taken was to reduce the amount of vehicles allowed in the cities. Public transport was also made free to encourage Parisians to leave their cars at home.

Pollution levels were deemed severe by Parisian authorities and made worse by a high-pressure weather system which prevented particles from being dispersed.

Cities in the European Union use what are called urban access regulations to reduce emissions when pollution gets above safe levels, such as low emission zones (LEZ) in Copenhagen, urban road tolls in London and traffic limited zones in Madrid.

In Paris and Lyon, local government took special measure when the volume of PM10 particles in the air rose above acceptable levels.

What are Pm10?

Particle pollution, also called particulate matter (PM), is a mixture of solids and liquid droplets floating in the air. Some particles are released directly from a specific source, while others bond together in the atmosphere. Particles less than or equal to 10 micrometers in diameter are so small that they can get into the lungs, potentially causing serious health problems. Ten micrometers is less than the width of a single human hair.

Particles can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. Larger particles reaching the nose or throat will be filtered out by the body’s immune system. Exposure to particles can lead to heart disease and lung infections including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis and asthma.

In France, a study revealed that an estimated 48,000 people per year die from illnesses caused by air pollution.

The traffic reduction measures are imposed when the rate of PM10 is higher 50 micrograms (mg) per cubic meter (m3) for more than one day, or when the rate is more than 80 µg per m3 in a day. The highest rate measured last week in Paris was 146 µg per m3.

Before banning cars all together, authorities can enforce reduced speed limits to curb petrol consumption, and reduce the volume of exhaust gases released into the atmosphere.

A partial ban is then initiated with light vehicles, including some cars, scooters and motorcycles, with odd numbered registration plates allowed on odd numbered days of the week. Vehicles with even numbered registration plates can be driven on even numbered days.

French odd numbered registration plates

What if Parisians ignore this rule?

A fine of €35 can be given, and if paid immediately, will be reduced to €22. Offenders also take the risk of having their vehicle confiscated by the police, though this is rare.


The aim of the measure is also to encourage motorists to carpool, so cars carrying at least 3 people are accepted.

Electric and hybrid vehicles are also not affected by the ban, along with essential services such as police, ambulances and journalists.

When the alert is triggered, authorities also give recommendations, alongside banning vehicles. These include vulnerable people avoiding physical activity, and all people reducing outdoor activities.

Last week was the first time Paris imposed traffic restrictions for more than one day. However it was the fourth time such measures have been imposed on the French capital.
Action was also taken on:

  • 1st October 1997
  • 17 march 2014
  • 23 march 2015

December 9 2016 was the first time the measures were activated outside of Paris, when Lyon and neighbouring town Villeurbanne imposed traffic restrictions.

Along with Lyon, Grenoble was affected by pollution, but sought to combat the dangerous fumes in a different way. Instead of registration numbers, the plan is based on the vehicle’s age and European emission standards.

Six categories of vehicles were created from electric car to Euro 2 diesel.

Since last Friday, cars registered before 1st January 1997 (EURO1 category), motorcycles before June 2000 and heavy goods vehicles before October 2001 cannot be driven in Grenoble.


What are the European emission standards?

There are legal frameworks which define the acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold in EU and EEA member states: Euro 1 (1993), Euro 2 (1996), Euro 3 (2000), Euro 4 (2005), Euro 5 (2009), Euro 6 (2014).

From Euro 1 to Euro 6, the emission rates are increasingly restrictive, and the amount of dangerous chemical emissions drop the newer the vehicles.
The US authorities have the same regulations, and Volkswagen emissions scandal comes from the fact the German car maker had tried to bypass the test of the emission standard with hidden software.


From January 1 in Grenoble and January 16 in Paris, drivers will have to buy a badge displaying their car’s category. If and when the severe pollution returns only electric cars and categories 1 and 2 will be allowed on the roads.

France is not the only European state to have a plan for pollution.

In 2007 Germany also set up a national plan and created vehicle restrictions in environmental green zones and cities and local districts .