Sat-navs and civil liberties

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This week the old chestnut of “road pricing” - that is, charging motorists by the mile depending on where they drive and when - appeared again in a report comissioned by the Government and produced by the former British Airways chief Rod Eddington, which appeared on Friday (see BBC report; you can download PDFs of the report itself from that page). The report “concludes that the potential benefits of charging motorists for using roads will outweigh the costs of the scheme” and that charging “will put some people off driving entirely, cut congestion and carbon emissions and could raise up to £16bn a year in payments”.

I’ve covered the issue of “road charging” on this blog in the past, mainly from the point of view of civil liberties. Specifically, the scheme will require the installation of a monitoring device in every vehicle, which tells the state exactly where any vehicle is at any one time. This no longer seems to be a worthwhile objection to the scheme, given how low a profile it had in the discussions of it on the radio on Friday. People objected to the cost and to the fact that it did not guarantee higher costs for “greedier” vehicles, but not to the sheer intrusiveness of it. For some reason, people in this country are more than willing to embrace Big Brother as long as it doesn’t cost them too much.

Of course it is necessary to bring down car use to cut congestion and pollution in crowded cities like London. What might also be necessary is to improve the bus links beyond London, which have gone through the floor since the 1980s, perhaps because once you get beyond subsidised London, fares go through the roof. I remember trying to get a bus from Croydon to Reigate a few years ago (I think this was during the short life of the 425 route) and the fare was about as high as the train fare (this was never the case in London until the present time of the £1.50 flat bus fare). Direct routes have been cut, and even split between different operators, so for example the old London Country route 406 from Kingston to Redhill has been split into the “red” 406, from Kingston to Epsom, and the independent 460, run by Metrobus out of Crawley, from Epsom to Redhill. Several of the old routes have either vanished or become unrecognisable (like the 409 from Croydon to East Grinstead, which now starts by going round the houses through Selsdon and Warlingham before rejoining its old route at Caterham).

I have always argued that a better way to stop urban car commuting is to ration parking spaces, and in some places remove them altogether. There are, of course, places which are far from any public transport - a lot of industrial parks are like this - and people who work irregular hours and have to make one journey at a time when public transport is sparse or non-existent. But in town centres, there should be no need for normal office-hours workers to commute by car; there just is not room for them. How about removing all the parking for commuters, and leaving short-term parking for shoppers (particularly very short-term parking, so that people can actually stop and nip into the shops without fearing a parking ticket) and spaces for traders, residents, the disabled and (possibly) a few top executives? At the same time, we should perhaps consider instituting more flexible forms of public transport, such as the minibus-taxis found in some cities, to take some of the commuters who would inevitably not find much room on the existing public transport.

One of the devices which was suggested as a means of tracking vehicles for charging purposes was the satellite navigation unit. For some people this just isn’t an option, because they cost about £200 on average and not everyone needs or wants one. I certainly don’t. With my geographical knowledge and map-reading skills, I rarely find them at all useful. There have also been numerous cases of them getting people lost - most recently, one in which an ambulance driver, taking a mental patient from Ilford to Brentwood in Essex - twenty minutes out along the A12 - ended up taking him to the edge of Manchester and back.

I fail to see how someone with such terrible geographical knowledge got in charge of a health service vehicle. It would have been much easier, not to mention cheaper, for them to have looked up Brentwood, and the hospital, on a map. Road atlases generally cost in the region of £10, the most expensive (the new AA “close-up” atlas, on a similar scale to the Phillips Navigator) costing £20. Is the NHS really wasting public money on these expensive and unreliable toys? Is it really so difficult to get drivers who know how to look up a place in an index and to read a map?

I’ve used sat-navs on a handful of occasions, the first being when delivering shopping for a major supermarket in Bromley - on that occasion, looking up residential streets I’d not heard of, I found the device useful. On a subsequent occasion, having forsaken my usual practice of using a map and my own knowledge of the area to just trust the sat-nav, I ended up feeling lost and disorientated and wondering why I was seeing signs for places I did not know were near. On yet another, a work colleague insisted on putting the sat-nav on for a simple journey from Colchester to east London, and got angry with me when I ignored the demands of his toy and followed what I knew (namely, that the A12 led to where we were going), causing the estimated arrival time to slip back a few minutes (it would have slipped back a lot further if I had taken the recommended route - via the M25 and M11 - and we had hit a jam).

I actually went out and had a look at what was on offer, and could not find a device for less than £150, which should not have surprised me really given that they are essentially small computers with a huge amount of data stored within them. Some devices cost a lot more than that. I’m actually quite fond of technology and computerised gadgets, but could certainly do without one which would basically rust my geographical knowledge and my own navigation skills. The problem is, of course, that I would probably have to pay for my own tracking device for the purpose of the police-state road tax, unless we get ourselves a government which won’t rob us of our liberties on phony “green” grounds.

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