Defined zones where air-quality-related restrictions

I have, on occasion, been accused of being cynical. Sometimes I have felt this to be unduly harsh criticism, but other times it is a badge I wear with honour - so long as we are talking about 'cynical' defined as 'being suspicious of others' true motives'.

I come to this column by way of reading the latest proposals for the possible creation by local authorities of defined zones where air-quality-related restrictions will be applied to certain categories of motor vehicle. I recognise that DZWAQRR is not an attractive acronym, but I can't simply refer to 'clean air zones' anymore, because Clean Air Zones (CAZs) are now only one part of a complex and confusing picture. There are also Low Emission Zones. And London's Ultra-Low Emissions Zone. And Air Quality Management Areas. The list goes on. It's not just the rules and terminology that are vague and varied. The locations and boundaries are also prone to change – Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently decided to extend his ULEZ to cover a far greater proportion of London than was envisaged by his predecessor.

I am not for one moment contesting the pressing need to do something to tackle our air quality problems. I have long observed that there is no point whatsoever in being able to drive to where we need to be if it isn't safe to breathe when we get there.

But couldn't we reasonably expect a bit more of a joined-up approach between our public authorities, so that as road users we know where we stand?

This isn't just a plea on behalf of individual motorists. I've heard cries of anguish coming from many quarters: fleet managers, delivery companies, refuse collectors and bus operators – the same bus operators who were being told they were a big part of the solution to our urban transport and environmental challenges not so long ago.

Speaking of those who believed they were doing the right thing, perhaps we could spare a thought for the owners of diesel cars who had reason to understand their green credentials were solid before the demonisation began.

I'm a bit less sympathetic toward the auto companies who knew their vehicles' on-road performance was markedly different to the lab test results they achieved, still less to those who have been found to have deliberately cheated the lab tests (though as we read the story that the new vehicle registration statistics are telling us, we should be concerned about the future of thousands of people employed in the auto sector).

We all called for a better vehicle testing regime, one we could trust, but no sooner did it arrive than the stories began to appear about those unsettling disparities between the test results and what went on in the real-world environment.

Let's be clear, devising a standard test that is reliable and repeatable across continents is difficult – very difficult. Different drivers achieve different mpg results because of their different driving styles. Even the same driver might return fluctuating results depending on the traffic conditions they encounter. Maybe CEN - the European Committee for Standardization, which develops a variety of cross-border standards for industries selling into a global market – can help us out through the expert Workshop process initiated and chaired by Emissions Analytics (which produces the EQUA Index ratings system) that aims to recognise a standardised method for collecting comparable vehicle data, which can then generate accurate consumer information about real, on-road emissions

Meantime the cynic in me wonders whether, in some circles, the potential patchwork of restrictions, charges, taxes and standards is seen as a good thing, because it might persuade us: out of our cars altogether; to dust down the bicycle that many of us have had for years gathering dust at the back of the shed; to buy a railway season ticket; to walk to the local shop rather than drive to the supermarket. Even where consumers insist on buying a new car it might be that they choose much cleaner technologies that deliver zero tailpipe emissions.

Why work to create clarity when confusion might do the job for you?

OK, chances are this is not a conscious strategy. While a true cynic sees elaborate plots everywhere the rest of us observe a world shaped by a mix of coincidences and cock-ups.

But the more general, darker, result of all this uncertainty is inertia: more of us are hanging on to our older vehicles for longer while we await a clearer picture of the risk that we'll end up with something that is going to attract a chunky charge for entering the town where we routinely do our shopping, or, worse, be banned altogether.

Alternatively we might trade into petrol, which is worse for CO2, just at the point when the auto manufacturers are producing some truly impressive new diesel models – Mercedes, Vauxhall, Honda, Volvo, Audi and Citroën have all brought models to market that have achieved results well within the tighter statutory limits even on the EQUA Index.

When the road ahead is foggy the advice to motorists is to proceed with caution. But if swift action is needed then what we desperately need is for the fog to be cleared so that we can all see the way forward – manufacturers and consumers alike.

The sooner that happens the better for us all...