|Black box in car to trap speed
Juliette Jowit, transport editor
Sunday August 3, 2003
Drivers face automatic speeding fines without being caught by the police or roadside cameras under a proposal being studied by the Government to fit all cars with satellite tracking devices for road tolls.
Under the anti-congestion tolling plan being examined by the Department for Transport, all vehicles would be fitted with a 'black box' to charge drivers according to the type of road they are using and when they are driving.
But transport experts believe the equipment will pave the way for 24-hour monitoring of drivers to see if they break the speed limit. It could also be used to determine whether drivers were speeding before an accident.
The Government is backing trials of an advanced system which would tell the black box when it entered a speed limit and prevent the vehicle going faster. The equipment could also find drivers who have not paid vehicle duty or insurance.
The system would use global positioning systems and computer technology. It would be easy to catch speeders and there are no legal obstacles - tachographs in lorries, which record speed and length of time behind the wheel, are already examined after accidents.
'It [the equipment] probably will be used for speeding,' said Tony Grayling, associate director of the centre-left Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank. 'It's an offence to break the limit and it's appropriate that evidence is generated to demonstrate the law has been broken.'
Much of the technology that would be used for the tolling devices is already in lorry tachographs, and in commercial satellite navigation devices. The prototype planned for UK car drivers should be introduced for lorries in Germany this year and in the UK in 2006. However, a compulsory extension to every vehicle would be a big political risk.
Leading German motoring journalist Wolfgang König believes the lorry toll is a Trojan horse for all vehicles - for tolling and speeding. 'Speeders could be easily identified and electronically charged. Any place, any time,' König said last week.
In Britain, the Freight Transport Association went further. It believes the equipment will be used to put speed limiters on every car. 'You won't be able to go faster than the limit, no matter how hard you press the pedal,' said Gavin Scott, the association's policy manager.
The company behind the technology said the only problems were political. Nick Rendell, managing director of the UK subsidiary of Siemens, which is making the black boxes in Germany, said politicians would only be concerned about winning votes. But with speeding being the biggest single cause of death on the roads, there would also be pressure to introduce it, he added.
Speeding is blamed for a third of the 3,600 annual deaths on Britain's roads. The Department for Transport acknowledges research that has shown how automatic speed limiters could cut fatal accidents by a fifth. 'Clearly if people wanted to save lots of life on the roads they could reduce the speeding of vehicles,' Rendell said.
Opposing attempts to crack down on speeding is a sensitive issue as no one wants to be seen as supporting something dangerous and against the law. The latest government figures showed that more than half of drivers broke the limit in 30mph zones and more than a quarter in 40mph areas.
However, motoring organisations have warned of a possible backlash against the whole tolling system and that the plans were a step too far. Edmund King, director of the RAC Foundation, said drivers were right to be concerned. 'There's no doubt the technology is there already... it's just a question of how it's used. In some areas, being able to track vehicles could have very positive consequences, [but] do we in this society want all our movements to be monitored 24 hours a day?' King said.
Launching his national consultation, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling repeated the Government's promise not to introduce national tolling before 2010. But advisers believe a national system could be in place in a decade. The RAC said the Government should promote benefits of the black boxes to win support.
Possible additions could include satellite navigation and congestion warnings and help in finding parking spaces and automatic payment. Private companies could offer location-based services, such as searching for cheap hotels.
The AA Motoring Trust, the policy arm of the organisation, wants Ministers to set up a board representing motorists, which would monitor how information was used.
A Department for Transport official said it was too soon to discuss black boxes for cars.
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