German cities face driving bans for diesel passenger cars in order to meet European Union air quality limit values.

The German Federal Administrative Court recently made a fundamental ruling stating that diesel driving bans are generally admissible. German cities may consider general off-limit areas for diesel fueled cars, as well as partial driving bans on certain heavily used streets.

Currently, approximately 70 German cities do not meet the EU’s nitrogen dioxide air quality limit values. To tackle this issue, the driving bans shall provide for better air quality through a reduction of nitrogen dioxide pollution.

In two rulings dated 27 February 2018 (file numbers 7 C 26.16 and 7 C 30.17), the German Federal Administrative Court established the legitimacy of diesel driving bans within narrow confines. Namely, a driving ban must be the only appropriate measure to keep the exceedance period of the nitrogen dioxide air quality limit values as short as possible.

The Federal Administrative Court clarified that, according to German federal law, a driving ban decree specifically for diesel fueled cars would normally be inadmissible. However, the principal of the primacy of application of EU law requires compliance with the EU’s air quality limit values as soon as possible. Consequently, German federal law must be set aside as far as it prevents the decree of driving bans, if a driving ban is the only appropriate measure to best limit the exceedance period of the nitrogen dioxide air quality limit values.

For this purpose, however, the court sets certain guidelines for implementing driving bans to achieve this purpose, especially regarding the proportionality principle. Therefore, German cities must contemplate a phased introduction of driving bans, initially addressing older vehicles only. Vehicles that comply with the Euro 5 emission standard may not be subject to driving bans before 1 September 2019. In addition, sufficient exemptions are necessary, for example for tradespeople, as well as for certain residents.

To what extent the affected cities are now willing (and required) to implement diesel driving bans shortly, in order to meet the European nitrogen dioxide air quality limit values, remains unclear. However, observers view this ruling as an important step in cleaning up air quality in German cities.