There have been two clear issues that have arisen from the Volkswagen emissions scandal of the past weeks. The first is VW cheated in tests, and the second is some of its cars have been pumping out harmful gases. Yet these cars are still cleaner than many older machines that are perfectly legal to use on the road with no penalty.

If we really are going to be serious about cleaning up the air quality in the UK and save the estimated 50,000 lives that are lost every year due to some of the effects of vehicle emissions, shouldn’t we start with the worst polluters?

While classic cars are maintained to very high standards by most owners who take fastidious pride in their vehicles’ condition, there is no escaping the fact they kick out more pollutants than almost every sort of new car. Scrapping these historically interesting and important cars would be a great shame, but their use could be limited to minimise the damage they do to the environment.

[Related story: Can old cars teach us new tricks?]

At present, you can drive a classic car into the centre of any city, where pollutants have the biggest effect on human health. Even in 2020 when London introduces an Ultra Low Emissions Zone, classic cars will be exempt all year round.

Though there may be far fewer classic cars on the roads of the UK, with an estimated 500,000 on our roads during the year, they still play their part in damaging the atmosphere and health of passers-by.

Classic cars are only a small part of the pollution problem"

A simple way to limit this damage would be for classics to be banned from city centres other than for special occasions, where the owner would pay a fee similar to London’s Congestion Charge. At least this would allow some use, unlike in Paris where the city’s mayor is planning to ban all pre-1997 cars from the city.

Classic cars are, however, only a small part of the pollution problem and it is the older, less efficient cars we should be targeting to help clean up our environmental act. A car built in the 1990s may have been cutting edge when launched, but that edge will have been blunted by thousands of miles of use and, most likely, minimal servicing now.

A car can only function at its best when properly maintained, but even a perfect 1990s car is not going to be anywhere near as clean or green as a much newer model. While many of the people driving such cars do so through necessity, they should also be rewarded for choosing something less polluting.

The government misguidedly introduced a scrappage scheme to help prop up the UK car market during the recession, so why not dig into its pockets to make a more useful contribution to the environment that benefits everyone? A one-off grant to help drivers upgrade to a low emissions car would soon pay for itself with lower demands on the health service.

Only when the government and drivers face up to the harsh reality of the problem of air pollution will we see genuine change for the better.

This article reflects the opinions of the writer, not any corporate view held by BT.

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