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19 February 2007

War on the motorist?

On road pricing and moving towards a surveillance state

By Sian Berry

That petition, with more than a million people travelling to London and marching for miles through a freezing February afternoon to oppose… Oops, sorry I was thinking of something else for a moment. Let me start again.

That petition, with more than a million people sitting at home and clicking on a website to object to road pricing, has been the subject of hot discussion this week among my Green Party and environmentalist colleagues. Much of it has been along the lines of, “War on the motorist? Try walking or cycling and see how you like it!”

No, the idea that car drivers are some kind of abused minority hasn’t caught on much in my immediate acquaintance, but one aspect of the debate that has caused controversy is the civil liberties question. Isn’t making every car trackable to run a road pricing scheme just a good excuse to monitor our movements, and one more step towards a surveillance state?

It’s a good question, and it won’t be a surprise to find that the police are keen on the proposals, and not just so they can make us drive within the speed limit. The resulting database could be used to enhance a wide range of their activities.

A 2005 strategy document by the Association of Chief Police Officers set out their (independent) plans to use CCTV fitted with automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) to log vehicle movements across the UK and keep the data for two years. But it also described plans to “develop links to further databases” in the future and stated how electronic vehicle identification, a key part of road charging plans, “offers the potential of supplementing and enhancing ANPR”.

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The ANPR network is now expanding fast, although it doesn’t have the kind of detailed coverage a GPS-based road pricing system would. Nevertheless, there are cameras planned for every 400 yards along every motorway, as well as at all major junctions, so the police will soon be holding an awful lot of data on our movements and will naturally want to increase this by dipping into the road pricing database.

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They may claim that they just want to target untaxed and uninsured motorists (a good thing – uninsured motorists injure 80 people a week in London alone) or to apprehend legitimate criminal suspects, but checking our paperwork at every junction seems like overvigilance to me, and it’s hard to see how every untaxed driver thus identified could be apprehended.

Manpower, not a lack of data, limits this kind of enforcement. The mobile ANPR squads currently operating in London are doing extremely well with just one camera per team. As Jenny Jones, Green London Assembly Member and part of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said when the first 18 months of results were released, “ANPR pays for itself many times over – but you need the officers out there doing the stops to make it work”.

From the point of view of enforcing tax and insurance, putting more police into these far less intrusive, mobile ANPR squads would make more sense than giving them a mass of information they can’t follow up – unless they want the data for other purposes too.

It is this kind of speculative data collection that we have to be careful of – with different branches of government grabbing data put together for one purpose and holding it for others, we will get closer and closer to the kind of state where coincidences and mismatched ‘suspicious’ activities will see the innocent arrested on a regular basis.

Some Greens have pointed out that your mobile phone is already a highly sophisticated tracking device that most of us carry around 24 hours a day voluntarily. And we also demand itemised billing (i.e. tracking of all our calls) just to make sure we’re paying the right amount to the phone companies.

For mobile phones, then, it seems we are prepared to accept being monitored when the means are convenient for us in other ways. But those who regard themselves as ‘motorists’ seem to find it so convenient to be in their cars that they can’t imagine an alternative and see it as an issue of rights.

We need to be more sophisticated than this. Assuming we all agree that a new way of dealing with the problems caused by our car culture needs to be found, we should start debating the details now, focusing on the technical guarantees to protect our privacy that could be built into any new system.

For example, the London congestion charge database, which collects together details of where and when cars enter the central London zone, is wiped at the end of the day once the registration numbers have been checked against the payment database. Only details (and photos) of cars that haven’t paid are kept, in order to issue penalty notices.

In a similar way, a road user tracking system could be designed to convert details of the roads we use straight into cost data and store only the details of what we owe for our travel. This would make the database useless for other government agencies and virtually guarantee it was only used for road charging.

Of course, it would also make it hard to appeal any charges, so perhaps drivers – like mobile phone users – would prefer an itemised bill, which would mean keeping the details on file and relying on assurances from government that the database wouldn’t be passed on.

Other important question marks that need to be debated include the fact that the Department of Transport’s feasibility study predicted a 40 per cent reduction in congestion and only a 4 per cent cut in road miles, due to ‘smoothing out’ existing journeys. The current plans therefore seem a rather poor way to cut our climate emissions compared with, say, zone-based congestion charges in congested towns and cities.

The London congestion charge has seen a 30 per cent cut in congestion alongside a 15 per cent cut in traffic entering the zone, which seems like much better value for the climate.

The Greens’ official short-term policy therefore remains to abolish road tax in favour of increases in our current mileage-based road user charge: fuel duty. However, I think that there is potential for either congestion charging or road pricing to be fairer on people stuck with terrible public transport (or those in rural areas with no alternative to the car) than a flat rate on petrol, although not as fair as our long-term policy of carbon quotas.

A system that capped carbon dioxide over all aspects of our lifestyles would reduce unnecessary car journeys to a real minimum. Those who currently complain about a war on the ‘motorist’ would have to look at the impact of their whole lives, and would discover how much of their quota was being used up by the strangle hold their car has over them. Maybe then they might prefer to see themselves as a ‘person’ instead.