TCS Daily


Cruise Control

By Kamila Pajer - May 25, 2005 12:00 AM

What increases overall socio-economic welfare, improves economic competitiveness reduces environmental damage? Obviously, state control and taxes. Or at least that is the answer the OECD, EU transport ministers and even the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) promote. With growing concern about the environment and the so called "greenhouse effect", efforts are under way to reduce transportation by taxing it more. Thus, many countries are seriously considering introducing surveillance tools and road pricing systems based on Global Positioning System (GPS) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology that will trace cars and tax their drivers and one day maybe - if the technology allows - even decide where and at what speed the vehicle goes if it allows it to move at all.

In the US, the NTSB is requiring electronic data recorders in all new cars manufactured in the country, and the Department of Transportation sponsors works on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). The EU has since 2000 tested the ITS in several cities in Europe under the PRoGRESS (Pricing Road Use for Greater Responsibility, Efficiency and Sustainability in Cities) program and hopes Galileo satellites will advance the project. The European Commission in its general report for 2004 states that "a decision was taken concerning a genuine European electronic road toll service which could be established as from 2006 in order to guarantee interoperability of road toll systems in the internal market and contribute to the development of infrastructure charging policies on a European scale". Trucks using German highways already are fitted with GPS/GSM technology to calculate their fares.

In Poland, the Ministry of Infrastructure dreams of satellite surveillance of drivers and has drawn highly ambitious plans for the coming decades stating that "the policy of the country is directed to introducing electronic road charging system". When asked how is he going to calculate the toll, the minister answers that it is possible with GPS so the state can require car owners to possess the system. In its "Country Transport Policy for the years 2005 - 2025", the ministry admits also that to fulfill the requirements of the European Commission the state will act to introduce such tax and fiscal policies that will restrict "an uncontrolled development of motorization".

The great concern of the EU is that there are too many cars on the roads, that cities are congested and that people prefer private cars to public transport. However, instead of building new roads that could help to solve congestion problems, the politicians think only of reducing traffic. The road-pricing schemes are supposed to be based on different parameters of the car to make those who drive gas-guzzlers or cars that pollute more, or those who drive during rush hours and on congested roads, pay more than those who have less polluting cars and drive them less often. The advocates of ITS argue that the new charge should be based on road use so that it would have an impact on the drivers' behavior, making them use petrol-saving cars, drive after rush hours and avoid congested city centers. They say the only feature that allows fair charging is a precise system of surveillance and data collection as provided by satellites.

But this is not the case. Today we already have a tax that makes those who use their cars more often and drive in rush hours on congested roads pay more. It is called excise duty and it is included in the price of petrol. If your car consumes more petrol, you buy more gasoline and you pay more excise. If you drive in rush hours you stay in traffic jams and use more petrol so pay more excise duty; it is the same if you drive on congested roads. The tax seems to be achieving its stated goals, according to the report by Institute for Prospective Technological Studies - Dynamics of the Introduction of New Passenger Car Technologies. European fuel consumption per vehicle per year has declined at about a 0.44 percent rate yearly over the period of 1975-2000 "as EU governments have increased taxes to maintain high vehicle operating costs". According to the same report over the period 1995 to 2001, new European gasoline cars and new diesel cars reduced their average fuel consumption (in l/100 km) from 7.9 to 7.3 and 6.6 to 5.8, so by about 8 percent and 12 percent respectively. The average fuel consumption for all gasoline and diesel-fueled cars combined fell by 12 percent. This trend is expected to continue and the average fuel consumption of all gasoline cars in stock is estimated to fall by 20 percent to 2020 and the average fuel consumption of all diesel cars in stock is estimated to fall by 44 percent to 2020.

So there's no real reason to introduce satellite surveillance of drivers other than to spy on people and make them pay for what they do. Although the Polish Ministry of Infrastructure promises the road toll will replace the excise duty (EU transport ministers make the same claim), this shouldn't be taken at face value, because the charge can discourage drivers from using their cars only if the tax burden is greater than it now.

Under the cover of environmental sensitivity and making people pay for the infrastructure they use, the states want to introduce a tool for total control of people's behavior. They are considering changing the law to be able to store and use the data collected this way. Police will tell you if they knew everything about all people, they would be able to catch all criminals. The state would add that such detailed information would enable the state to plan people's lives and actions so that nobody would have to think for themselves or worry any more. And some would admit they have nothing against surveillance for they have nothing to hide as must have thought PRoGRESS program participants for the organizers of the program remarked: "privacy was not found to be a major concern with the GPS systems".

And yet total state control means neither prosperity nor security - just think of the reality described by George Orwell in 1984. Moreover, thinking that only criminals will be checked and others have nothing to fear is rather naïve, for to make someone a criminal is quite easy - for instance Polish or German labor law is so restrictive that many people are forced to work in the grey economy that constitutes in those countries about 28 percent and 17 percent of the countries' GDP, respectively. The people who work illegally are thus breaking the law, no matter that they are forced to do so by state rules and that their work brings others no harm but much profit. The more restrictive, complicated and anti-free-market the law the more "criminals" it produces.

Privacy is not a sphere the state and its officers generously give to citizens; on the contrary it is people's natural law. The state can break it only if law permits it to do so, for example with a search warrant or a court verdict. The court thus protects people from officers' willfulness and allows people to defend themselves. When the state changes that, citizens will lose their rights. Technology will soon enables the state to control people in a way the totalitarian international Communists and German National-Socialists could only dream about.

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