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Confusion reigns as Paris pollution prompts traffic ban

A Police officer checks the documents of a driver during the enforcement of pollution control measures in Paris on March 23, 2015
A Police officer checks the documents of a driver during the enforcement of pollution control measures in Paris on March 23, 2015 AFP / Lionel Bonaventure

Half of all traffic was banned from taking to the roads of Paris and its suburbs Monday in a bid to tackle a dangerous spike in pollution, but the measure’s complex rules proved perplexing for many of the French capital’s motorists.


The “alternating traffic” ban, which came into force at 5:30am Monday morning and will continue until midnight, means that only vehicles whose licence plates end in an odd number can be driven on the roads of Paris and 22 adjoining suburbs.

But while it is the third time the measure has been put in place – the last occasion coming almost exactly a year ago during a similar spike in pollution – getting to grips with the rules has proved a challenge for some Parisians.

"Zero, is that odd or even?" one motorist asked a policeman on Monday morning.

“Zero is ok with me,” came the reply, even though zero is in fact an even number and therefore included in the ban.

The long list of exceptions to the ban is also adding to the confusion.

For example, so-called “clean” vehicles, such as electric-powered and hybrid cars, are exempt, as are small vans and commercial vehicles, public service vehicles and certain delivery vehicles.

People working in a number of professions, such as journalists and sales people, are free to take to the roads regardless of the cars’ licence numbers.

Those carrying at least three people in their vehicle are also exempt, though this has been another source of confusion: what to do, if, for example, you drive your kids to school but then return by yourself?

‘Good faith’

Others were apparently unaware there was a ban in place at all.

“Really? There’s alternating traffic?” asked one scooter driver as he was stopped by police in the west of the city “[I] honestly had no idea.”

The police, 750 of whom have been deployed to enforce the ban, are at least willing to give drivers a bit of leeway.

Paris’s police department has promised to take into account drivers’ “good faith” when deciding whether to issue a 22 euro fine to those flouting the ban.

"The key term is ‘active instruction’. We hand tickets to those who are the most uncooperative or who are trying to make fools of us,” said Paris police traffic chief Jean-Pierre Meutelet.

By midday, some 2,800 fines had been issued for contravening the ban – though this was significantly down on the total of 4,000 handed out by the same time last year.

If navigating Paris’s roads is proving a challenge, then so is taking the city’s public transport, which has been free since Saturday.

“I’m worried it’s going to be even more difficult to get on the train than usual,” one commuter told the RMC radio station Monday morning.

“Normally, I let two or three trains pass before getting on because I refuse to be squeezed in like a sardine … [Today] I might let three or four pass or maybe I’ll have to find another solution.”

The drastic measure appears, at least, to be having the desired effect. Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo said Monday morning traffic was down by around 40 percent on normal levels.

Authorities announced on Monday afternoon the traffic ban would not be extended into a second day with air pollution predicted to fall back to a safe level on Tuesday, though this may have more to do with the weather than the traffic.

According to Airparif, the organisation that monitors air pollution in Paris, the return of rain after several days of dry weather is set to help clear the smog that has settled over the French capital.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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