BRITONS are taking a fresh look at the automobile and its role in their society - and they don't like what they see. Last week, a royal commission warned that if stern measures are not taken to curb the increase in the number of cars, the country will become gridlocked within 20 years.
Simultaneously, a parliamentary committee released some alarming findings about the environmental effects of so-called ``green'' car fuel. The committee says large and increasing numbers of British motorists are using unleaded gasoline that poses a greater threat to public health than the leaded variety it has replaced.
It wants gasoline that is marketed as ``super unleaded'' banned because it contains a high proportion of aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene. These hydrocarbons produce pollutants that aren't ``scrubbed,'' even by catalytic converters, the committee says. It also calls for research to be done immediately on the pollutant effects of standard unleaded gasoline containing smaller amounts of aromatics.
Rethinking the car's future comes at time when the number of vehicles on British roads has soared, while rail and bus transport has been allowed to languish. Britain is a small country (96,000 square miles) for the number of cars traveling its roadways. (Oregon, for example, is 97,000 square miles.) At the current rate of growth, the number of British cars will double in 20 years, with close to one car per person in a population of 56 million.
The Royal Commission has proposed doubling the price of gasoline to 5 ($8) a gallon over 10 years, halving spending on motorways and other main routes, and boosting investment in trains and short- and long-distance bus transport.
John Lawton, a member of the commission, says without urgent action, life, particularly in southern England, will become extremely difficult. It would mean towns bathed in fumes, fields concreted over, and congestion in most main population centers.
Britain is very much a car culture. Stephen Joseph, director of Transport 2000, a London think tank, notes that the country is more dependent on cars than any other in Europe. Its citizens clock up nearly 400 billion passenger miles a year, and use their cars for 7 out of 10 journeys of one mile or more. ``Public transport has been starved of real investment for so long that we have lost any idea of what a good system could be like,'' Mr. Joseph says.
The views of the parliamentary transport committee on the use of the ``green'' gasoline appear to be having the most immediate impact. The report sparked a sharp reaction from the United Kingdom Petroleum Industries Association, which represents the country's major gasoline suppliers.
David Park, director-general of the association, says the parliamentary watchdog has reached ``alarmist and scientifically flawed'' conclusions. But the report has been backed by Friends of the Earth and other British conservationist groups.
The problem of automotive pollution arises partly because gasoline requires additives if car engines are to run smoothly. Leaded gasoline contains lead to boost its octane levels. The unleaded variety has added aromatics for the same reason.
British service stations began selling unleaded gasoline in 1988 and received strong government support in the form of a 25 to 30 pence per gallon subsidy passed on to customers at the pumps.
Many motorists began using standard unleaded gasoline because it is cheaper. Others went for super-unleaded, believing it would improve their cars' efficiency.
The committee report says, however, that the gasoline companies and government failed to put sufficient emphasis on the fact that green fuel should be used in cars with catalytic converters - equipment that filters out harmful impurities before they reach the atmosphere.
The result of six years of government policy and industry marketing is that about 12 million of Britain's 22 million cars are burning fuel described as environmentally friendly, but thought by scientists to be unhealthy, the committee says. Catalytic converters on new cars were made compulsory in Britain only last year, and so far, 4 million cars have the equipment.
Scientific opinion about the effects of benzene emissions from cars remains divided. Anthony Seaton, a pollution expert at Aberdeen University who has advised the government in past years, says the risk is ``exceedingly small.''
But Roger Perry, a pollution specialist at Imperial College, London, says it was ``unwise'' to introduce unleaded petrol before catalytic converters were in wider use.