16 May 2005

Government gets tough on 4x4 drivers

Drivers of 4x4s, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and off-road vehicles caught flouting the country's environmental laws could land up in jail or face stiff fines as the government threatens to get tough on people damaging ecosystems.

The threat to deal with "irresponsible" off-road vehicle owners from Marthinus Van Schalkwyk, the minister of environmental affairs and tourism, has hit the 4x4 fraternity hard, amid fears of a further ban on the way.

"There are also some irresponsible 4x4 vehicle and track owners, whose activities continue to damage sensitive sections of our inland environment," said Van Schalkwyk.

Drivers of 4x4s are accused of causing soil erosion on and around 4x4 tracks, in game reserves and at rivers, affecting ecosystems and causing air pollution.

Anyone breaching the country's environmental laws faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to R5-million, or both.

Van Schalkwyk recently told the national council of provinces he was concerned about the growing impact off-road activities were having on the ecology.

He has given 4x4 drivers six months to come up with measures to govern themselves otherwise, he said, the government would introduce laws that could curtail the movement of the estimated 500 000 or more 4x4 vehicle owners.

Mike Eaton, the spokesperson for the National Off-road Workshop, organisers of a major indaba planned for October to come up with proposals for the minister, said relations with the government had soured since Valli Moosa, the former minister of environmental affairs and tourism, banned drivers from taking their 4x4 vehicles on to beaches.

Eaton said, although private off-road vehicle owners lacked unanimity, 17 representatives had agreed to meet to draft proposals.

Sales of 4x4s and SUVs are dropping in Britain and the United States over mounting pressure over their impact on the environment and their lack of fuel efficiency.

Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, called 4x4 owners "complete idiots", while another Briton labelled them "Satan's little runabouts".

In America, certain 4x4 vehicles were said to have contributed extensively to pollution. Two weeks ago, Ford and General Motors had their bonds officially rated as "junk" because of declining demand for their SUVs. General Motors suffered a loss of more than $1 billion (about R6,2 billion) in the first quarter of this year.

According to the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa, the organisation recognised as the authority on the local motor industry, South Africans are stepping up their love affair with 4x4s.

Last year they bought 36 540 4x4s compared with 31 288 in 2003. In the first quarter of 2005, almost 11 000 4x4s were sold in South Africa.

Shaun Vorster, a special adviser to the environment minister, said laws governing 4x4s would relate to the construction of new tracks and the managing of the country's existing 500 circuits.

"This could lead to a ban on 4x4s in certain inland areas," he said.

Peter Lukey, the chief director of enforcement in the environment department, said the degradation at certain 4x4 tracks was a cause for concern.

Lukey is a member of the "Green Scorpions", a unit of environmental management inspectors created in terms of the National Environmental Management Act, which will come into effect shortly. The inspectors will target anyone, from poachers to polluters.

They will have a range of enforcement powers - from routine inspections, to search and seizure, establishing roadblocks and arresting suspects. They will also have the power to issue formal notices to individuals or corporations breaking environmental laws or not complying with the terms of their licences.

Geoff Dalglish, a journalist and former motoring editor at The Star, drew widespread criticism after an article he wrote in Getaway magazine called for a ban on 4x4s.

"While I'm not actually advocating a ban on 4x4s in cities, I do feel it is time that we took stock of the impact on the planet, dwindling resources and the degradation of formerly pristine areas."

Dalglish said there had been an explosion of 4x4 vehicles on the roads, although relatively few appeared to venture off-road. He added that during his travels in Africa he found many South African 4x4 owners irresponsible and that they had left a trail of destruction.

"They couldn't or wouldn't regulate themselves on the beaches, and continue to show a reckless disregard for others and the environment, especially across our borders where there is less control."

He said the most effective way of recognising the heavier footprint of 4x4s and other vehicles on the environment would be through legislation.

Wendy Watson, the head of land transport regulation in the department of transport, said the department was considering the impact that off-road vehicles were having on the country's roads.

"Larger vehicles do cause damage to roads," she said.

"The impact on safety and environment, especially with a fuel shortages scenario, would have to be considered," she said.

Yvonne Mfolo, the spokesperson for Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the minister of minerals and energy, said emissions, particularly from larger vehicles, were a concern.

"The 4x4s are guzzlers and we always advise people to save fuel by purchasing a vehicle that is fuel efficient or uses diesel," Mfolo said.

Source: www.iol.co.za


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