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Control Freaking the Roads

On the Road to?

The government, faced with opposition from most sectors of the public ranging right across the political spectrum, has had to back down on its plan to introduce motorway tolls, initially in Scotland. It would appear the main support for such proposals came from naive greens whose fanatical anti-car obsession over-rode their common sense. NuLab do, however, still intend to press ahead with equally controversial schemes for road pricing and workplace parking levies. It should also be noted that the notion of charging the public to use their own motorways has not in fact been abandoned but merely postponed. A pilot scheme to test tolling equipment on the M8 will still be implemented, and NuLab were very specific in the wording of their announcement, that existing motorways might not be tolled, which suggests that any new ones (whether publically owned, state-subsidised under the Private Finance Initiative, or fully private) may well be.

The recent reshuffle in transport, with Prescott assuming a more background role and Lord Macdonald taking the high profile as UK transport minister, should not be assumed to be anything other than window-dressing. Macdonald, unlike Boyack the transport minister of the Scottish parliament, has indicated a preference for the development of cleaner engines rather than direct discouragement of the private motorist. There will probably now, in reflection of this apparent divergence in government opinions, be more road construction south of the border. If, however, one considers the transport situation within a wider context, it becomes clear that to spend more on roads in England though not in Scotland is a backdoor political expedient to appease the southern criticism (whether justified is immaterial) that there is a disproportionate amount of public expenditure in the north by central government.

Road developments in the south will allow for the introduction of PFI or similar semi-privatisation, and the cost of such subsidisation of the government’s big-business cronys can of course be used as an excuse for the subsequent imposition of road-tolling. At the same time, Macdonald is clever enough to realise that forcing motorists off the road would decrease the potential take from parking charges or street-pricing; indeed, he has indicated he would like to see cars made more affordable to people in all sectors of society. The bottom line in NuLab policy is the extraction of profits from the public, and it makes more business sense to breed the golden goose then milk it nearly dry, rather than to strangle it!

Road pricing is not the only avenue of attack. The government are taking a hard line against speeding, but as with so many of their initiatives one has to wonder if it is driven by genuine concern for the well-being of the public, or is ulteriorly motivated by power and profit. There seems little reason to suspect the former. In the March 1999 edition of the Metropolitan Police Federation magazine, Metline, is this rather sinister observation: “Speed cameras at the moment have their limitations… but when these can be overcome they are a sure winner for raising revenue.”

Warwickshire Police, keen supporters of the government hard line on speeding fines, already has its own business plan for the exploitation of speed monitoring technology. In many British towns and cities the role of traffic-wardening has been handed over to private companies, and with regard to vehicle removal and impounding the police themselves are in joint-venture partnership with the private towaway companies, whereby they split the take — policing for mixed motives which, in cynical view, could be inadvertently establishing a dangerous precedent for law-enforced extortion rackets.

Without going into detail, the government and local authorities’ collusion to penalise single-occupancy cars represents control-freakery at its worst. Apart from the issues of insurance liability for passengers and the potential for in-car assaults or, conversely, false allegations of attacks, there is the matter of the rather severe license penalty-points and fines that are imposed on those who fail to comply with the multi-occupancy laws. The authorities are keen enough to impose responsibilities downwards, but not willing to accept responsibility in the other direction; enforcement of the regulation also means all vehicles (however well driven) are of necessity being closely scrutinised, to the point where monitoring of occupants in the passing also equates to their identification…

The problems of vehicle identification for speed limit enforcement, road and street tolling and perhaps also for parking, may soon be solved by each vehicle being compulsorily fitted with electronic identifiers. For widespread street-use charging, that would seem to be the most practical method. With the prospect of tasty profits, it is almost inevitable that once it becomes technically possible (which might not be long, given the present rate of advance) there will be proposals to establish a national network of roadside monitoring and recording boxes — which would also happen to give the authorities a running location fix on any vehicle, anywhere. Satellite navigation or tracking, and remote engine and braking controllers, are already available. Thus the threat may not be just financial but also to civil liberties, to freedom itself.

Consider the data acquired as above being cross-referenced to that from the increasingly ubiquitous CCTV surveillance cameras, and an effectively compulsory multi-function data storing ID card/passport/credit card/medical card. Soon the general public — already treated more as the enemy than the employer of those who govern — will be neatly and inescapably nailed down. A future streamlining of the system could well involve routinely implanting a data chip in the individual citizen. The notion is not as unlikely as might at first seem; after all, it is done to stray dogs already. This would, of course, all be for your own good — isn’t it always?
And dontcha just luurve Big Brother?

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