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Road lobby rage over anti-car play

An educational play set to tour Britain's schools has been accused of spreading biased anti-car propaganda to enlist children in a battle against their parents' driving habits.

Road Race is aimed at impressionable pupils aged as young as 11 and focuses on the menace of cars, but the British Road Federation said it was misleading about the impact of future traffic growth.

The AA and RAC are also concerned that its message on green transport issues could be slanted, and Rover say its dire pollution predictions are exaggerated.

News of the planned performances comes amid a row over two "eco-warriors" - a girl aged nine and an 11-year-old boy - who vandalised cars in Kensington, West London, after being told by a teacher that exhaust fumes were destroying the environment.

Nineteen Porsches, Mercedes and BMW models were scratched in an underground car-park, causing an estimated Pounds 15,000 damage. But police are powerless to prosecute the girl because she is under the age of criminal responsiblity and the boy is likely to geta caution.

Road Race was commissioned by West Sussex County Council to coincide with a TravelWise campaign which has been adopted by 30 local authorities in a bid to persuade people to leave their cars at home whenever possible.

At one point actors don protective "anti-pollution" suits and pupils are encouraged after each performance to draw up a TravelWise Charter listing objectives to cut down car use by parents. "The play aims to help every pupil become aware of the alternatives to car travel in their own lives and appreciate the influence they can bring to bear on their parents," said a council spokesman.

"It is a Theatre in Education production combining a play and workshops to encourage children aged between 11 and 14 to discuss the facts and issues about increased car use, how to ease traffic problems and improve the environment.

"It will help them assess their own aspirations to be car drivers and question whether their use of the car ought to be different from their parents."

But Paul Everitt, deputy director of the BRF, said: "It is straying very much into propaganda. A number of TravelWise schemes have had misleading information in them."

Rover's Mike McHale, a senior executive who attended a preview, added: "We recognise the need to get the message across about using the car sensibly, but some of thefigures were suspect. Our studies suggest pollution levels will fall and congestion will not be as much of a problem as the play suggests."

Steven Pearce, artistic director of the theatre group StopWatch, which is to perform the play throughout the country starting in January next year, denied it was totally anti-car but admitted it was targeted to influence children before they are old enough to make up their own minds.

"They are beginning to form definite opinions but are not already car-users, so have not got into that ingrained mentality," he said.

"We are trying to point out that more roads are likely to have an environmental impact, the health implications of increased pollution and the effect of a sedentary lifestyle. In no way do we coerce anyone to form a particualar opinion. They simply come up with a series of ideas having been encouraged to form their own opinion."

But the AA's Richard Freeman said: "It's all very well persuading kids that the car is damaging society, but they'll be disappointed when they get older and find out what the alternatives are," he said.

"It is a question of whether they are getting a balanced picture. We are concerned they are being fed something which they will later find out is biased."

The RAC's Richard Woods added: "I'm worried about the slanting of a complex issue in simp-listic terms. People are dependent on cars. You can't just leave them at home."

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