Low Emission Zones (LEZs) are areas or roads where the most polluting vehicles are restricted from entering. This means that vehicles whose emissions are over a set level are banned - or in some cases allowed in only on payment of a (sometimes hefty) charge. A good guide to the principle and how they work in practice is at this EU-sponsored site.

They are often known as 'Environment Zones' - or the equivalent in the local language. Germany now has over forty
Umweltzonen - see map below; and look out elsewhere for Milieuzones, Lavutslippssone, Miljozone, or Miljözon.

They are often the most effective measure that cities can take to reduce air pollution problems in their area - the emissions targeted are mainly fine particles, and nitrogen dioxide. But they do add to the challenge of driving into an increasing number of city and town centres in Europe.

Before you travel into a LEZ, you need to find out the emissions standard of your vehicle. Vehicle emissions are classified by the so-called "Euro Standards" for the vehicles that they affect. In many cases another factor is whether or not the vehicle has a particulate filter or catalytic converter.  The German zones - concentrated in the west of the country - are gradually being stepped up to 'Level 3'; by this summer, you'll have to be driving the newest, cleanest of cars to be allowed into the zones - which often cover more than just the central core of the city. And you must plan ahead - make sure you display the relevant colour badge, obtainable for €4 from main petrol stations in Germany, or before your trip through enterprising agents, on payment of their extra service charge.

Most LEZs operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with some of the Italian LEZs currently the only exceptions to this rule.

So you will be affected if you intend to drive into the central areas of many larger towns in Germany and Italy in particular, and you drive a diesel vehicle, or a petrol Euro 4 vehicle without a three-way catalyst (Euro 1 equivalent).
NB Italian zones, whilst more tightly drawn around the central core, affect all vehicles, including motorcycles.
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Low Emission Zones are perhaps the most distinctive of the special restrictions that apply in some towns and cities, and the ones with which a British driver might be least familiar. Far more common still, of course, are more comprehensive road closures in urban centres, including pedestrian zones. If you're heading into a town to park for your overnight stay, make sure you have clear directions from the hotel on where and when you can drive. If you're a day visitor to any town of historic interest - unless you took the precaution of prior research on the internet- you have to rely on the (often excellent) signing to car parks. Town centres are the one place when you want to leave the car and get out and explore on foot as soon as possible.
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