The Smog Wars were in their tenth year and life in the capitals of Europe was grim. Wiederkoenig’s mobs, patrolling the streets in matt black Porsche Mephistos, struck fear into the hearts of ordinary citizens. Brussels continued to fight a red-tape rearguard action, sending swarms of health and safety inspectors to car factories and stifling production by seizing on petty infringements of meaningless regulations.
Yet the Smog Wars largely passed Hungary by. Hungarian policy makers, forward looking and ready to buck the trend, had adopted a different tack in the regulation of vehicle emissions: labeling.
Embracing the free market, they had decided that vehicle emissions standards were inappropriate. The parliamentary debate had been short. “It’s a violation of our god-given right to self-determination,” snapped the leader of the Fadesz opposition, passing through the parliamentary chamber on his way from a sub-committee meeting on Hungarian ethnic minorities. That decided it, and Brussels’ proposals were shelved.
Road-deaths, smog levels, CO2 emissions, and congestion continued to rise, and with them road-rage was placing a huge burden on the health service. Costs were spiraling. Something had to be done.
That something came from Stumpy Regenkurt, the guru of policy-based investment. He strongly believed that if people were provided with the right information to make purchasing decisions … just look at cigarette labeling. A little afternoon lobbying in the cafés around Budapest’s parliament, a few whiskeys that evening in the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel, and a spot of detective work at some other venues rather later into the night, and Stumpy had secured full political support for a vehicle safety labeling scheme.
Within days of parliament passing the Vehicles and Climate Change Labeling Act, cars appeared in the streets bearing health warnings such as: “Combustion of petrol causes global warming”, “This vehicle is a risk to your health”, “Driving contributes to the death of polar bears”, “Take a bus or kill a tree”, or simply “Cars Kill”. Stumpy was raking it in from the compulsory labeling fee which car owners had to pay to have the signs applied.
Contrary to expectations, the scheme was a great success. Alerted to the dangers of motor vehicles, people did indeed choose to walk rather than drive. Public health steadily improved. Road deaths fell. Those small people who remained behind their wheels began to feel that they had a purpose in life. The trees rejoiced. The motor manufacturers, which had cannily diversified into health insurance, were delighted. Stumpy Regenkurt and his financiers felt that glow which comes with the knowledge that you are doing some good.
An even greater stroke of environmental altruism came from the privatisation of the driving license authority. Once the regulation of driving licenses was in private hands, Regenkurt’s consortium introduced annual tests for the over 60s and the under 25s. Although an attempt to introduce monthly reverse parking tests was quickly withdrawn following accusations of discrimination, the private licensing regulator discovered the formula for maximising revenues while minimising volumes. As a result, vehicle numbers further dropped and the Hungarian people grew in contentment.
Budapest was Wiederkoenig’s Waterloo. German luxury carmakers quietly withdrew from the market, taking with them many of their loyal, more rugged, customers to reinforce numbers back on the home front.
1. See The Hedgehog Exemption, www.thebustard.blogspot.com, 1st May 2007