FRANKFURT -- Drivers of diesel-powered cars without particulate filters could face occasional bans in many European city centers next year under new European Union air quality rules about to take effect, officials and activists say.
The regulations seek to limit particulate matter that pollutes the air and has been linked to a series of health problems, especially in children, the elderly and sick people.
"We assume that there will be driving bans in all the big (German) cities in built-up areas and indeed several times a year depending on weather and traffic conditions," said Juergen Resch, head of the Deutsche Umwelthilfe environmentalist group.
At issue are European Union limits on particulate matter that communities have to uphold from 2005 under clean-air guidelines adopted in 1996. They also cover levels of other pollutants such as nitrous oxide, lead and carbon monoxide.
Despite the long transition period, dozens of cities seem unprepared to meet the new standards, officials say.
One study found that five times as many people die from inhaling microscopic particulate matter -- much of which comes from diesel smoke -- than die in vehicle accidents.
Material rubbed off tires, construction dust, and emissions from industry and heating also play a role.
Environmental groups are poised to help citizens file lawsuits over excessive pollution levels and say they stand excellent chances of success.
The Council of German Cities estimates that the first violations of air-quality rules should begin in late February, when weather conditions tend to trap particulate matter.
It sees driving bans as a measure of last resort and would prefer alternate steps such as detours. Driving bans are hardly enforceable when filters for diesel cars are not required as standard equipment, the association says.
German carmakers have long fought such requirements, instead volunteering to equip all new cars with such filters by 2009.
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Germany's environment ministry, led by Greens member Juergen Trittin, has blessed driving bans as an acceptable way to combat excess levels of pollution, as proven elsewhere.
Stockholm, for instance, has banned old, heavy trucks from the city center since 1996, and particulate matter levels in London sank 12 percent since the city started charging tolls for motorists to enter the central area.
Austrian cities Innsbruck and Salzburg and Italy's Merano and Bolzano are also good examples, Resch said.
"They simply block off the city. I don't get in with an unfiltered diesel," he said.
The new rules come as good news for French carmaker PSA, whose Peugeot and Citroen brands have made particle filters a big selling point in Europe, where diesels account for around 40 percent of the new car market.
Big auto parts suppliers are looking to equip new cars and play down the idea of selling retrofit filters.
"That is not our focus," said a spokeman for Bosch, Germany's biggest automotive supplier. "This would only be possible at great expense. You have to change the entire motor management."
But smaller rival HJS in southern Germany is working on a filter that drivers can install on their current diesel.
"You can't demand consumers buy a new car just to be able to get into the city," HJS development chief Reinhard Kolke said.
He said a filter that can scrub out 70 percent of particulate matter would cost more than 700 euros ($934).