The major issues on which we campaign
🌳Investment in the road network
Successive governments have failed to appreciate the importance of the road network to the country`s economy, with the result that investment in improving the strategic network and maintaining roads in a safe condition has been wholly inadequate. This has led to congestion increasing as economic growth has created greater demand for travel. Congestion causes delays that cost billions of pounds per year. Poor maintenance has led to the condition of many roads deteriorating to the point where they cause damage to vehicles and contribute to accidents.
Motorways and dual carriageways have much lower accident rates than single-carriageway roads. The failure to upgrade many rural A-roads to dual carriageway or motorway standard to cope with rising traffic flows has led not only to congestion and unreliable journey times but also to increasing frequency of accidents. These are often caused by frustrated drivers attempting unsafe overtaking manoeuvres or trying to cross or join a main road through a gap in the traffic that is too short.
With 83% of passenger mileage undertaken by cars, vans and taxis, and roads carrying 90% of inland freight (2015 figures), road travel is by far the most important transport mode to the economy. Yet this is not reflected in the split of government transport expenditure. In 2015/16, total public spending on transport was £28.1bn, of which just £6.69bn (24%) was spent on improving and maintaining roads. Railways, which carry just 10% of passenger miles and less than 5% of freight, received £15.17bn, 54% of the transport budget. Local public transport (mainly buses, which carry 5% of passenger miles) received £2.7bn, 10% of total transport expenditure.
The Government proposes to skew expenditure even more in favour of rail with its plans to build a high speed railway network (HS2) from London to Birmingham and beyond. This vanity project will cost over £55bn, money which could achieve a much greater return if used instead to upgrade the strategic road network and tackle the backlog of maintenance work. The economic case for HS2 is based on forecasts of passenger numbers that most serious economists regard as grossly exaggerated, so the project is unlikely to ever pay its way. It will also be environmentally damaging to the areas it passes through and lead to reduced levels of service on existing railway lines.
The ABD believes, therefore, that transport expenditure should be reallocated in a way that more closely reflects the importance of the road network to the nation.
🕳The financial burden on drivers
Road users paid £50bn in taxes per year, made up of fuel and excise duties, VAT on fuel and car sales, and company car tax. This is over seven times the amount spent on road construction and maintenance (£6.69bn). Considering the importance of road transport to the economy, such a huge imbalance cannot be justified.
The cost of road transport has an impact on the price of virtually all goods and services, either directly or indirectly. It also has a major impact on household budgets. Consequently, high road user charges both raise the price of the products people want to buy and reduce the amount of disposable income with which to buy them — a double whammy. Reducing the burden of taxation on drivers would stimulate economic growth, with a net gain to the Treasury over time.
The main burden of taxation on drivers is from fuel duty and vehicle excise duty (road tax). The latter is a tax on ownership, which does not in itself create any wear and tear on the roads. With national databases enabling the authorities to easily determine whether vehicles that are on the public highway are insured or have a current MoT certificate, there appears to be no continuing bureaucratic need for vehicle excise duty. It should be phased out and drivers should be taxed only on the fuel they use, which is proportional to distance travelled.
As long as vehicle excise duty is levied, differential rates based on carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions should be scrapped. Demonization of CO₂, a trace atmospheric gas vital to all life on the planet, is based on the flawed hypothesis of man-made global warming. In any event, a vehicle's CO₂ emissions are closely related to its fuel consumption, so those drivers who choose or need to drive a larger car are already paying extra through fuel duty.
Rising fuel prices, whether due to the price of oil or increases in tax, create uncertainty as well as having a direct negative impact on the economy. Fuel duty and VAT on that duty account for over 69p of the price of a litre of petrol or diesel (2016). Put another way, duty and VAT represent a taxation level that is around 140% of the commercial cost of the fuel. There is plenty of scope, therefore, for the Government to stabilise prices at the pumps by varying the tax-take as oil prices fluctuate. This would make it easier for businesses and individuals to plan for the future and stimulate the economy.
In addition to the taxes and charges imposed at national level, drivers often face unreasonably high charges levied by local authorities, especially for parking. While the costs of providing off-street car parks need to be met, many councils are raising their parking fees to extortionate levels in an attempt to fill budget deficits elsewhere. This discourages visitors and damages local economies. In smaller towns that do not have the retail attraction of major shopping centres, local authorities should avoid introducing parking charges at all, to prevent making difficult trading situations even worse. In these cases, providing off-street parking from the council`s general income may cost them less overall.
Where residents do not have off-street parking and there is competing demand for kerb space with shoppers or commuters, residents` permit schemes may sometimes be justified. The price of permits should be set, however, only at a level necessary to operate and enforce the scheme, not to make a profit. As with vehicle excise duty, permit charges based on CO₂ emissions should not be levied.
Tolls, congestion charging and road pricing
The underused M6 Toll in the West MidlandsGiven that the Government takes five times as much tax from drivers as it spends on the road network, further burdens in the form of tolls, congestion charges or pay-per-mile road pricing are unjustified and unacceptable.
Tolls have traditionally been used only to pay for major infrastructure investments such as estuarial crossings, where drivers have few if any alternative routes. In these situations the tolls should be removed once the capital cost has been repaid and a maintenance fund established. In the case of the Dartford Crossing, a vital link in London`s M25 orbital motorway, that point was reached around 2001, but the tolls have been retained and, indeed, increased, simply to take even more money from drivers. While the removal of the toll booths has reduced the congestion caused by drivers stopping to pay the toll, it is still indefensible that a clear promise to end the tolls once the crossing had been paid for has been broken.
The M6 Toll Road shows clearly how drivers avoid paying tolls if there are alternative routes available. Originally known as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, the M6 Toll Road was intended to relieve congestion on the M6 around Birmingham. It has consistently failed to attract traffic at anything like the forecast levels, however, with the result that the project has been losing money every year since it opened. Indeed, traffic levels have fallen as the operators have raised the toll charges in an attempt to generate more income. Many drivers, it seems, would prefer to take their chances with congestion on the M6 than pay extra for the privilege of using the new road.
A much better approach to paying for new roads would be for the Government to pay ‘shadow tolls’ to the builders of new road capacity. This involves payment according to the volume of traffic using the new roads, giving the operators an incentive to make the road as attractive as possible. It enables the Government to avoid paying the construction costs up-front. This system has been used successfully in the past but fell out of favour as a result of pressure from the anti-roads lobby, who want to discourage people from driving. It is time for shadow tolls to be looked at again.
Congestion charging in cities has been advocated for years by the anti-car lobby as a means of reducing traffic levels. In reality, traffic flows into our major cities have been static or falling for many years, not just in the post-2008 economic downturn. Congestion has been increasing despite these falling traffic levels because of actions taken by local authorities to reduce road space for cars. Having created the congestion in the first place, councils want to charge drivers more for an inferior service!
So far, the Central London Congestion Charge is the only significant scheme in the UK. In its first year of operation, congestion in central London did fall slightly, but this was due to manufactured congestion in the pre-charging period, when many road works were undertaken simultaneously, causing delays. Over the subsequent years, however, congestion returned to the level before the scheme began as a result of more road space being taken from drivers and the installation of more traffic lights.
The western extension of the London congestion charging zone was introduced by Ken Livingstone despite strong opposition. It too achieved very little in cutting congestion, but jeopardised the future of many businesses in the area. Boris Johnson removed the extension after a public consultation showed a large majority in favour of scrapping it.
Wherever residents have been given the opportunity to have their say on whether congestion charging should be introduced, such as in Edinburgh and Manchester, they have voted overwhelmingly against. Congestion charging schemes are neither wanted nor needed.
Road pricing, in which drivers are charged for every mile travelled at rates varying according to the roads used and the time of day, is often claimed to be the best way to manage the road network to alleviate congestion.
Apart from the privacy issues involved in drivers being tracked continuously, even a cursory examination of the idea shows that it cannot cut congestion without forcing many drivers off the roads altogether, especially those with lower incomes.
Advocates claim that other road user charges, like vehicle excise and fuel duties, would be reduced to compensate for the charges per mile travelled. However, the costs of introducing a national road pricing scheme, plus the annual running costs, would be very high and would have to be paid by someone. It is highly unlikely that the Government would be prepared to pay those costs, so they would instead be added to the burden paid by drivers. Thus a road pricing scheme might be revenue-neutral to the Treasury but it would certainly not be tax-neutral to the average driver!
In 2007 an ABD member started an e-petition against road pricing on the Downing Street website that attracted 1.8million signatures. This was an extraordinary response and showed very clearly that there should be no place in transport policy for road pricing schemes.
↩Reversal of policies that create delays and congestion
In the last fifteen years many local authorities, especially in urban areas, have been adopting policies aimed at discouraging car use and promoting walking, cycling or public transport. Often the stated justification for these policies is false or exaggerated claims about the effects of car use on the environment, health or road safety. In many cases, however, the real motive has been a political or ideological aversion to the freedom for individuals to travel where and when they want, which private motor vehicles provide.
Putting these policies into practice has meant road space being reallocated for bus or cycle lanes, more traffic lights being installed or their timings altered, roads closed to through traffic, and the introduction of so-called ‘traffic calming’ measures. The result has been a reduction in capacity of the road network in the areas affected, creating congestion, delays and frustration. Many traffic calming schemes have been introduced to mitigate the impact of drivers finding alternative routes through residential streets to avoid the manufactured congestion on main roads.
The ABD is not opposed to public transport, cycling or walking — indeed, it supports the rights of all individuals to choose the most appropriate mode of transport for the journeys they wish to make. The road network needs to be managed, however, to maximise the capacity and safety of all modes. So, for example, bus lanes should only be introduced or retained where the total passenger capacity in buses and private vehicles is greater than without the bus lane. Cycle lanes, as well as reducing road space for other vehicles, are disliked by many cyclists who find it safer to ride with the traffic than in a narrow lane near the kerb.
By removing unnecessary bus and cycle lanes, and optimising traffic light timings or removing them altogether, main road capacity could be restored, reducing the temptation for drivers to find ways round bottlenecks by using residential roads. Intrusive and vehicle-damaging traffic calming schemes, especially road humps, could then be removed. This approach has been adopted successfully in, for example, the London Borough of Barnet. Other authorities should drop their antipathy to car drivers and adopt the same approach.
⚖ More balanced Road Safety policies
In order to understand why road safety policies need to change, we first need to review how current policies have evolved, what is wrong with them, and then explain how they should be changed.
History. Britain has one of the best road safety records in the world and, along with other developed countries, accident rates have been falling for decades. This welcome trend in casualty reduction has traditionally been associated with the ’Three Es’ — Engineering, Education and Enforcement.
Engineering covers both better roads and safer vehicles. Motorways and dual carriageways have much lower accident rates than other rural roads or those in urban areas. Newer vehicles have improved primary safety (in avoiding accidents) and secondary safety (mitigating injuries in those accidents that do occur). The driving test has been made more rigorous over the years, though the ABD believes the driver training process needs further improvement if it is to produce drivers with the beliefs and attitudes that lead to safe behaviour. Enforcement has in the past been carried out by trained police traffic officers, who have used their discretion and common sense in deciding whether an errant driver should be prosecuted or given a warning.
Over the past twenty years the balance within the Three Es has changed. In the recession of the early 1990s the government cut spending on the road network, with many improvement schemes cancelled or postponed. Realising the detrimental effect on road safety that would result, the government looked for an alternative and relatively cheap way of being seen to be serious about reducing accidents. The result was the authorisation of speed (and red light) cameras, the first of which were installed in 1992.
The sites of the first cameras were selected after proper analyses of the accidents that had occurred, but local authorities quickly began to see cameras as the first choice ‘solution’ to any accident problem, regardless of the actual causes of those accidents. As road safety policy thus began to shift towards prioritising the enforcement of speed limits, with more drivers being caught speeding, the government needed some evidence to justify its policy. The Transport Research Laboratory duly published a report in 1994 claiming that a 1 mph reduction in average speed leads to a fall in accidents of 5%. The ABD has analysed the methodology of this report and found many serious flaws. Despite this, the report`s findings have been quoted many times and are used to justify not only much greater speed limit enforcement with cameras, but also wholesale speed limit reductions.
In 2001 the government authorised national adoption of the ‘cost recovery’ scheme, under which the installation and operation of speed cameras was financed from the fines paid by drivers. This led to an explosion in the number of cameras and speeding penalties, with up to three million drivers prosecuted per year. The controversy that ensued was followed by the Transport Research Laboratory producing new reports seeking to confirm and refine its findings from 1994, but once again the ABD has discovered serious flaws in the methodology and assumptions.
The cost recovery scheme led to the creation of ‘safety camera partnerships’, which tried to justify their existence by making extravagant claims for the effectiveness of speed cameras in reducing accidents. At the same time as cameras were proliferating, police traffic patrols were being cut drastically. In 2007 the government belatedly realised that the cost recovery scheme was encouraging empire building and creating distorted priorities, so it was scrapped. The camera partnerships already established were still able, however, to obtain funding for their operations from the government. In addition, new guidance on the setting of speed limits encouraged local authorities to reduce their speed limits still further.
Although the Coalition government stopped direct funding of speed cameras, some camera partnerships are now financing their operations from the fees paid by drivers to attend speed awareness courses, as an alternative to prosecution. The criteria for offering these courses have been relaxed to obtain more income for the partnerships. Whether it is legal to waive prosecution in exchange for payment of a course fee, for an offence that would otherwise have attracted a penalty and points on a driver`s licence, is open to question.
Enforcement, particularly of speed limits, has become the dominant feature of road safety policy. Furthermore, most of that enforcement is now automated through speed cameras rather than by trained traffic police officers, with rigid enforcement thresholds replacing discretion and common sense. The result has been a huge increase in the number of drivers prosecuted for exceeding speed limits, mostly in circumstances where no danger has been caused.
There is no evidence that this massive increase in speed limit enforcement has led to an improvement in casualty trends. Indeed, the opposite has occurred, as the rate at which fatalities fell from the mid 1990s to 2007 was the poorest for decades. While the main reason for this slow rate of fall may have been the strong economic growth during that period, it certainly does not demonstrate any benefit from the increased enforcement. (The much greater rate of fall in fatalities over several years from 2008 was linked to the economic downturn, not road safety policies.)
The reason that speed limit enforcement has been so ineffective is that it is focussing on the wrong issue. Inappropriate speed for the prevailing road, traffic and weather conditions can certainly be a factor in accidents, but this speed may be either above or below the speed limit. Exceeding a speed limit, by itself, is not inherently dangerous, nor is driving below the speed limit a guarantee that an accident cannot occur. Being able to adjust speed according to changing conditions is one of the most important skills a driver needs to acquire to be safe on the road. This skill must not be undermined by attempting to micromanage drivers with inflexible and often arbitrary speed limits.
Experienced drivers adjust their speed according to the varying frequency of hazards they can see ahead of and around them. They speed up as the hazard density falls and slow down as it increases. Indeed, the roads with the lowest hazard density — motorways — have the highest speeds but the lowest accident rates. Conversely, roads with the highest hazard density — in town centres — have the lowest speeds but the highest accident rates.
Speed limits have a role to play in road safety, but it is much more limited than most people believe. If set correctly, speed limits can guide inexperienced drivers and confirm the judgement of the experienced, responsible majority that their speed choice is correct. This leads to a high level of compliance, smooth traffic flow and minimum accident risk. If set too low, however, the speed limit will conflict with drivers` assessment of appropriate speed, leading to non-compliance, driver frustration and increased risk of accidents. Many speed cameras are sited where the speed limit is unnecessarily low, resulting in safe drivers being prosecuted needlessly.
Leaving aside drink or drug driving, and other criminal activity, if a driver has an accident due to inappropriate speed it is because either they did not spot a potentially hazardous situation in time or did not react correctly to it by slowing down. In some cases this will be down to inexperience, but more often it is due to lack of attention. The excess speed is a symptom, therefore, of one of those underlying failures, so the remedy needs to address these fundamental causes. Focussing on speed itself is analogous to a doctor prescribing a pain killer to a patient instead of investigating the cause of the pain!
Most accidents are the result of human error on the part of one or more road users (including cyclists and pedestrians, as well as drivers). Many of those errors are due to people not giving sufficient attention to the task in hand when using the roads. Sources of distraction are not just the obvious external ones like using a mobile phone, but include the internal distraction of allowing one`s mind to wander and think about other things. The resulting ‘auto pilot’ state can lead to dramatically increased reaction and response times if something unusual occurs.
Road safety policy needs, therefore, to focus much more on road user attention. This is essentially an education and training issue. Correct use of the roads needs to be taught at the earliest possible age, and driver training should begin before the age at which a driving licence can be obtained. The focus of this training should be on instilling the correct beliefs and attitudes that lead to safe behaviour. While learning the physical skills of driving is important, it is a driver`s thought processes that will ultimately determine whether he or she is safe behind the wheel.
Automated speed limit enforcement needs to be replaced with a return to road traffic policing, focusing on the issues that really matter, such as drivers showing signs of inattention or poor judgement. Speed awareness courses should be replaced with driver improvement courses, to tackle the root causes of poor driving. Where existing speed cameras are sited to slow drivers in advance of a hazard such as a junction or bend, they should be replaced with vehicle-activated signs that show why drivers need to slow down. Speed limit setting should revert to the method advocated prior to 2006, which leads to speed limits respected by the majority of drivers.
These proposals will necessitate a fundamental change in the government`s approach to road safety. Current policies avoid tackling the important issues and instead take the soft option of making important that which is easily measured — speed. If we are to make any real improvements in casualty reduction — and stop the needless criminalization of safe drivers — it is a change that must be made.
A full list of campaigning topics in alphabetical order