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The British Government has announced that it is investigating the possibility of electronically controlling the speed at which we all drive.  The way this will work is that each car will be fitted with a GPS transponder which will determine the location of the car.  The location of the car will be referenced against an electronic map which has the speed limit stored in it and a signal will be sent to the car's engine management system to ensure that you cannot exceed the speed limit.

This proposal gives rise to a number of thoughts, some of which are more serious than others. 

1.  It is yet another example of the hectoring, nannying predilections of our current Government.   The ability to make decisions is to be removed in the name of what?  The view that speed kills is simplistic.  Inappropriate speed undoubtedly contributes to the death rate on our roads but speed,  per se, is not the problem.  After all, motorways are the safest roads by a long margin. 

2.  If no-one is able to break the speed limit, the Chancellor will be deprived of the income generated from GATSO cameras and the like so we can expect to see a hike in taxation.  This will undoubtedly be on the cards anyway if new car prices fall.  The Treasury has a vested interest in maintaining Treasure Island's horrendous new car prices since it grabs 7/47ths of the price of all new cars in the form of VAT which the vast majority of businesses is unable to recover.  High new car prices are reflected in high second hand prices and once again, the Treasury snaffles 7/47ths of the margin earned by the second hand car dealer.  The insistence that we all (apart from Johnny Two Jags and his Ministerial colleagues) drive around in tiny little cars with small engines means that sales of big (and expensive) cars will take a tumble and so, therefore, will the VAT receipts.

3. The country's biggest motoring organisation, the Automobile Association, which purports to represent the interests of motorists, is in favour of this proposal.  Fortunately, the RAC is opposed to it.  I know who gets my money.  Of course the AA will be obliged to tell you that you will have to wait for three hours since their patrol vehicles will be obliged to crawl along at low speeds to get to your broken down car.

4.  Who is going to pay for the installation of this electronic junk?

5. Who will be responsible when the AA-approved killjoy kit breaks down - which it will?

6.  What happens when a breakdown in the system occurs? The driver behind you in a 30 mph limit has his or her foot glued to the floorboards, the system fails and he or she accelerates into your boot.  Who is responsible?

7.  You are following a tractor on a country road with a 60 mph limit.  You can’t overtake safely because oncoming traffic is not sufficiently spaced apart so the speed on this country road drops to 15 mph.  On reflection this will probably not be a problem since there will be no tractors since there will be no agricultural industry left.

8.  High powered cars are safer to drive than low powered cars because you have the ability to accelerate out of trouble.

9.  I don't see how the proposed system can be retro-fitted to cars without engine management systems.  Expect to see a massive increase in the price of classic cars equipped with carburettors.

10.  There is an entire industry of hackers out there who will find ways to bypass the system.  Thus those who are really determined to break the law will buck the system.

11.  The police can be relieved of their traffic duties and concentrate on cutting crime.  This will probably cause some major cultural problems for the boys in blue.

12.  What happens in the event of an emergency?  Your wife/girlfriend is about to give birth and you are driving her to the hospital; your son has just been bitten by an adder? 

13.  How will the system operate in tunnels? 

14.  Why not solve unemployment and reintroduce the man (or woman) with the red flag?

And what will follow this proposal?  Restrictions on the number of hours you may spend behind the wheel?  Preventing you from starting your car when weather conditions are poor?  The introduction of no go zones to prevent fox hunters from attending meets?  Preventing anyone from driving within 5 miles of a pub or licensed restaurant?  Requiring you to wear a pedometer to ensure you don't walk too fast?  Fitting push bikes with electronic limiters?  Hobbling horses?  Banning knives in case we cut ourselves?  Prohibiting glass beer mugs?

Wouldn't it make more sense to insist that trains be fitted with appropriate safety equipment?  And if the expense is the reason why this has not yet been done, what makes J2J think that we should foot the bill?

Removing the ability to make decisions for oneself sets a dangerous precedent.  It removes responsibility for one's own actions.  And if one is no longer responsible for one's own actions, who is?  The answer, inevitably, is that we all become responsible for everyone's actions but our own - by virtue of higher taxes or higher insurance premiums.  Why should responsible people pay for the actions of an irresponsible minority?  Perhaps swimming, skiing, football, rugby and cricket should be banned on the grounds that they are dangerous sports. 

Furthermore, it is part of mankind's genetic make up that we crave thrills.  Deny them this particular outlet and some other activity will replace it.

There are additional fears - a totalitarian government could use such a system to monitor its opponents' whereabouts and to restrict their movements - even to ensure that opponents meet an untimely demise by both electronically flooring the accelerator pedal and disabling the brakes on a remote cliff edge.

Doubtless there will be exemptions for the police, fire brigade and ambulances and doubtless such exemptions will also be afforded to the rich, powerful and famous.  The problem is, you are just as dead if you are hit by a stolen car driven by a kid high on drugs as you are if the car is driven by a police officer.

Apparently Britain is not alone in contemplating this nonsense.  Both the Netherlands and Brussels are looking at this proposal.  If you consider that this particular article is 'political', just remember that governments are the servants of their electorates.  No-one apart from a politically correct, anti car or totalitarian minority could even contemplate such a restriction on civil liberties.   George Orwell was wrong on two counts.  The year was not 1984 but 2000-and-something and it is not Big Brother we should fear but Big Nanny. 

I do however feel it is necessary to add a caveat to this piece.  The entire issue hinges on the word 'inappropriate' as mentioned in point 1. above.  Driving at 30 mph at 15:30 on a weekday in term time past a primary school is irresponsible; irrespective of what the speed limit signs say.  Driving at 130 mph on a deserted motorway at 04:00 is not irresponsible.  The authorities fail or refuse to differentiate between the two. 

Responsible people regulate their own behaviour.  If the British (or Dutch or the rest of the EU) people accept such an imposition, then they are effectively accepting that they are incapable of self regulation.  In which case, why not abrogate all personal responsibility to the State?  Lock the entire populace up in padded cells where we can do no harm to ourselves or to others.  Rather than regulate people's behaviour by coercion, it is far better to use persuasion.  When that fails, a custodial sentence for repeated offences should be mandatory.

Speed limits should only be imposed when there is a good reason for them and the law should only be enforced when it is in the public interest to do so.  Perhaps we should reverse the roles of judge and jury and allow the judge to determine whether the law has been broken and allow the jury to determine the punishment (within certain guidelines).  This would ensure that sentences would reflect current morality and common sense.  My hypothetical 130 mph drive on a deserted motorway at 04:00 would merit a small fine while the 40 mph drive past a primary school at 15:30 would merit a massive fine and possible disqualification. 

Rather than prosecuting motorists for breaking arbitrarily imposed and often irrelevant speed limits, I believe the police should prosecute people for tailgating which is stupid, dangerous and irresponsible.  The Association of Chief Police Officers has just announced that there will be no leeway where speeding is concerned.  This is, apparently, in response to pressure from road safety and ecological pressure groups.  If the police and pressure groups seriously believe that permanently looking at one's speedometer is safe, they need their collective heads examining.  When you are looking at your speedo, you are not looking at the road or in your mirrors.  A zero-tolerance policy regarding tailgating would have a far greater impact on safety and ecology but would (probably) be more difficult to enforce.  It would probably not be the money spinner that speeding tickets are.  And this is the crux of the matter - GATSO cameras are no longer being sited near accident black spots; they are now being located where they are likely to generate the most revenue - as if the British motorist is not taxed enough already. 

In Britain we suffer the highest fuel prices in Europe with a total tax rate of 610% and our sanctimonious Prime Minister tells us that we must grin and bear it if we want a National Health Service or if we want our children to be educated.  He gets driven around in a Jaguar or Rover, neither of which is the world's most economical car.  Johnny Two Jags, his buffoon of a Deputy Prime Minister owns two of these gas guzzlers and yet has the temerity to tell us that we should give up our cars and travel everywhere by public transport.  I am criticising hypocrisy on the part of some ministers who seem to believe that it is quite in order to have one rule for them and another for us.  We have a Prime Minister who allows himself to be driven in a bus lane on the M4.  We have a Home Secretary who allows himself to be driven at speeds that would cost the rest of us our driving licence - and it is probably reasonable to assume that the Special Branch officer who was driving him was driving perfectly safely at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

The belief that taxing fuel will reduce car use is abject nonsense.  The rich won't notice the price.  Middle income people will moan but do nothing.  Some of the poor will cut back on what they see as inessentials like road tax, insurance and servicing. They will not stop driving.  The very poor do not have cars. The end result of this idiotic policy is that there are large numbers of uninsured and dangerous vehicles on our roads - the last statistic I saw suggested that at least 20% of all cars on our roads are illegal in one way or another.  This does not improve road safety.  Nor does refusing to build bypasses. 

Justifying the unjustifiable?  Some have accused me of attempting to do so but what is unjustified is the unnecessary  imposition and enforcement of speed limits without regard for safety.  What is also unjustifiable is the enforcement of speed limits without any human intervention ? the use of GATSO cameras and the Big Nanny technology.  Breaking the speed limit is justifiable under some circumstances ? fire engines, ambulances, police are all allowed to do so, subject to the underlying principle that they drive safely.  I am sure we can all envisage circumstances where it might be justifiable to break the speed limit and currently most reasonable police officers would factor the circumstances into their decision making process.  The courts too allow pleas in mitigation.  My concern is that the human element will be removed from the equation and it will be a case of automatic penalties without regard for the circumstances. 

If safety really is an issue on our roads - and it should be - let us address the real problems such as tailgating or driving whilst oblivious to one's surroundings.  Other problems include driving while under the influence of drugs - both legally prescribed and illegal - and driving while uninsured.  I read recently that it is estimated that there are as many as 2 million uninsured cars on our roads.  These are the real issues.

© 2000 Julian Marsh


 Association of British Drivers