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Satellite tracking cars { June 8 2003 }

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School run tolls to cut roads chaos
Satellite tracking plan to charge all rush-hour drivers

Gaby Hinsliff, chief political correspondent
Sunday June 8, 2003
The Observer

Drivers are facing the biggest revolution in the history of British motoring with charges for using crowded roads during the school run and 'rush hour' tolls for commuters as part of sweeping new plans to ease congestion.

In a move that will infuriate some motorists and delight environmentalists, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling wants cars to be fitted with a satellite tracking device to clock journeys, with drivers subsequently billed for their travel, as part of controversial proposals to end the roads crisis.

Commuters, school-run parents and motorway users would bear the brunt of a variable system, where charges would be highest for rush-hour travel and for using the most congested roads. But the Government is likely to scrap car tax or cut petrol tax when the charges are introduced, as a sweetener to avoid a backlash from motorists.

In his first public foray into the debate, Darling told The Observer there could be serious civil liberties implications in monitoring the movements of 24 million drivers nationwide by satellite.

But, he said, the choice was between charging or covering the country with Tarmac. 'You can't build yourself out of the problem that we face,' he said. 'We have a choice in the next 25 to 30 years: either we build more and more motorways - astronomically expensive, environmentally damaging, and I doubt if we could actually do it - or we take a radically different look at how we manage the system. That is where road pricing comes in. I am convinced that unless we look at the possibility of road pricing, then future generations will not forgive us.'

Darling said the Government would not expect to make money from the scheme, which would apply to all congested roads. Those who rarely drive, or do so 'off peak', could see their car costs reduced overall once taxes were cut, but those with heavy mileage could pay more.

Darling will hold a seminar on Tuesday with academics, motorists' organisations and others to debate practical issues. He said a nationwide system would be at least a decade away by the time the technology was refined, but added: 'If we don't start thinking about it now, we are going to face a situation where we will have very, very severe traffic problems. We are going to have to face up to these choices and I want to stimulate a proper debate.'

However, other changes could be introduced earlier. In a clear signal to local authorities, Darling said he was 'surprised' none had yet considered using existing powers to set a flat-rate con gestion charge similar to that recently imposed in London, but payable only for travel during the rush hour.

Ministers have been nervous of upsetting motorists since the petrol tax revolt in 2000. However, their hands have been forced by a string of transport studies to be published this summer, which are expected to show that rail and bus use is not increasing fast enough and more roads are only a temporary solution: Darling has already abandoned targets to reduce congestion.

Tony Blair is also increasingly convinced that the battle can be won, having seen RAC polling suggesting 76 per cent of drivers would accept charging if petrol prices were cut in return.

By next summer the Department for Transport will have detailed breakdowns for most British roads showing exactly when and where jams occur - allowing the creation of a sophisticated charging scheme with 'peak time' rates where traffic is usually heavy, while other roads might be used for free.

Graphs for the A14 in Cambridgeshire, for example, show that a journey which should take 40 minutes can last up to 70 minutes between 8am and 9am: during school holidays, the same rush-hour trip length falls to 55 minutes.

Darling is already discussing with the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, letting schools vary their opening times in some areas to reduce school run congestion.

'If your objective was to reduce congestion between 8 and 9 on a particular road, whatever you did with pricing would have to be geared to that road,' said Darling. 'Not all of Britain's roads are congested all the time. There may be roads where we wouldn't be bothered.'

Persuading drivers - and car manufacturers - to fit satellite tracking technology will raise concerns over civil liberties. The data would be invaluable to police checking suspects' alibis or to counter-terrorism surveillance.

Darling said the issue needed 'special consideration' but he still used his mobile phone, even though his location could be traced, for convenience: 'If I was able to drive down Britain's motorways more reliably, I might think "this is worth doing: I have got nothing to hide".'

The RAC, which believes charging may be needed on 10 per cent of roads, will push on Tuesday for cast-iron assurances that future charges would be offset by lower motoring taxes.

'Charging should not be a substitute for improving roads or public transport,' said spokesman Edmund King. 'The Government will need to give something back.'

Julie Foley, transport researcher at think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said while drivers already have in-car satellite navigation fitted to help with map reading, they might prove reluctant to have it fitted in order to be charged for driving.

A road charging scheme for commercial lorries to be introduced by 2006 will be used as a testbed.

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