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China Vehicle Population Hits 240 Million as Smog Engulfs Cities

China added more cars last year than the total number plying its roads in 1999, illustrating the challenges the government faces in controlling vehicular emissions and traffic congestion in its cities.

The vehicle population reached 240 million last year, of which 120 million were passenger cars, according to a statement by the Ministry of Public Security on its website. The 15.1 million new cars added last year were more than the entire car population at the end of 1999, the ministry said.

Sales of new vehicles are forecast to top 20 million this year for the first time, as growth rebounds in the world’s second-largest economy. Beijing implemented vehicle emission standards today that match the strictest European guidelines in an attempt to cut down on pollutants as toxic smog engulfed the capital for much of the past month.

U.S. embassy readings showed air quality in Beijing reached “hazardous” levels on 20 days in January.

Demand for vehicles will be supported by the number of first-time drivers, which reached 26.5 million. That alone was higher than the total number of motorists in 1997 and helped boost the entire driving population to 260 million last year, the ministry said.

Car ownership exceeded one million in 18 Chinese cities, according to the ministry.

Passenger-vehicle sales this year may climb 8.5 percent to about 16.8 million units, as the total number of vehicles sold surpass 20 million for the first time, according to the state-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

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