‘War on motorists’ drives cars off the roads

The world is divided on what to do with cars. Some countries want to help motorists. Others want to make their lives impossible. The debate has deep cultural roots.

Nearly half of Britain's motorists are driving less, a new survey has found. They say roads are getting worse and costs – like road tax, fuel duty and petrol prices – are going up. Now, according to the RAC, drivers want action from the Government: a freeze on fuel taxes and much more investment in roads, rather than alternatives like rail.

The UK's Road Safety Minister, Mike Penning, seems sympathetic. Back in 2010, he said the Government wanted to end what he called a 'war on the motorist'. Car users feel picked on, for example, by things like speed cameras, which bring in millions of pounds each year in fines. Now Penning has ordered councils to stop using motorists as 'cash cows', and to publish details of how much money the cameras take from the public's pockets.

Is this sort of step a welcome break for hard-up drivers or a foolish concession to the motoring lobby? The question finds the world bitterly divided. In the USA, the car is seen as a symbol of American freedom. People learn to drive as young teenagers, and the first car is a rite of passage as important as the first kiss.

American cities are laid out with broad streets, where lanes of traffic glide smoothly through carefully arranged ranks of coordinated green lights. Fuel taxes are less than a sixth of what they are in the UK. Roads are well maintained, while railways are little used.

In Europe, the attitude is different. In fact, many traffic planners want to make it as hard as possible to drive anywhere at all. Lights are designed to turn red often and keep speeds down. Roads which used to bear cars have been pedestrianised – traffic replaced by café tables. Cars are squeezed onto slow, narrow streets.

Public trams and buses in many cities have right of way over cars, and subsidised cycle hire aims to get people out of cars and onto bikes. 'Driving is a stop-and-go experience,' says one Swiss official. 'That's what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.'

Meanwhile, fines, taxes and charges keep the cost of driving high, while public funding keeps the cost of alternative transport low.

Two way street

These opposite approaches to transport policy have deep roots in European and US culture – but which is right? Cars are about independence. They allow us to spread out and do our own thing. But they are noisy and polluting, turning urban spaces into dangerous, congested highways.

If we're forced onto trains and buses, we make our cities more beautiful and we help slow global warming. The cost, however, is that we sacrifice some of our freedom.

You Decide

  1. Are cars a good thing or a bad thing?
  2. How important is independence to you? Is it ever worth sacrificing?

Activities

  1. Write a short poem or song about cars, either praising or criticising them.
  2. In groups, debate and organise a traffic policy for your local area. How do you invest your budget, and what sort of traffic do you want to encourage?

Some People Say...

“Cars are humanity's most harmful invention.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do some countries charge so much fuel tax?
The justification is that driving has a lot of hidden costs for society, called 'externalities'.
Meaning what?
An 'externality' is an economists' name for any cost that is associated with a product but isn't paid for by the producers or the consumer. With driving, that means things like pollution or global warming.
How are those things external?
Pollution costs a country quite a lot. For example, hospitals have to pay to treat people who get asthma from living near a busy road. That cost isn't normally counted as part of the price of petrol.
How do taxes help?
Costs for externalities are often born by governments. Taxes help governments cover those costs by, for example, building more hospitals.

Word Watch

Speed cameras
These highly controversial road safety tools have appeared all over Europe and the US. They automatically detect when a car is driving over the speed limit, and take a photograph of the car's number plate. The owner of the vehicle then gets a speeding ticket and a fine.
Rite of passage
A rite of passage is something that marks an important transition from childhood into adulthood.
Subsidised
Governments often support certain enterprises with 'subsidies' of public money. Subsidy comes ultimately out of taxpayers' pockets.

Subjects

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