Guardian: The phoney war
- This is quite long, but it's worth a read
Saturday November 27, 2004
The phoney war
The attempt to make our transport system greener has resulted, says the car lobby, in a 'war on motorists'. Martin Wainwright separates the myths from the realities
Roy Allott earns his living as a chimney engineer, but earlier this year he put his practical know-how to a different use. So annoyed had he become with the screech of tyres and scrunch of metal outside his house in the north Yorkshire town of Harrogate that he roped in a mate who works in electronics to help him fix up his own working speed camera. He hung it from a pole, giving it the appearance of an official camera, and in a single day "caught" 137 drivers ignoring the 40mph limit.
Sixty miles further north, Sharon McLachlan crept into a police station near Redcar in Cleveland to "borrow" some items necessary to a scheme she'd been planning for months. Armed with a yellow high-visibility jacket, handcuffs, baton, a police notebook and a wad of fixed penalty notices, she ticketed cars in Redcar and Guisborough in north Yorkshire for having bald tyres and booked three drivers for speeding.
Those are just two skirmishes in what has become known as the "war on motorists", a conflict that has grown over the past 10 years from a marginal concept that mattered to few people into one of the issues guaranteed to raise the hackles of man-in-pub. The attempts to green up our transport habits, speeding fines, parking tickets, the price of petrol, sleeping policemen in the road - don't mention the war to a dedicated driver, unless you want to hear a list of motoring gripes.
In the broadest sense, motorists' complaints date back to Jehu, the Israelite general who rode down Jezebel in his chariot and whose name was invoked to describe furious drivers in the early days of motoring. And as long as there have been cars on the road, there have been complaints about persecution. Long before the current war on motorists, we had the Battle of the Breathalyser, the Seatbelt Struggle and, in the parallel world of motorcyclists, the Crash Helmet Campaign. But it is harder to identify a single, clear theatre in today's war on motorists, although those who see themselves as its casualties insist they can identify the date it was declared.
Buy Tickets on eBay.co.uk
You'll find anything from tickets for gigs, amusement parks...
Ticket-finders.com - find and buy tickets to all sold-out...
Buy Tickets Online
Ticket Solutions are a specialist ticket agency with over...
"It was declared by John Prescott in 1997, when he made his commitment to get people out of cars," says Tim Yeo, the shadow transport secretary. John Prescott, of course, never actually opened fire - the Conservatives claim "the war on motorists" as their own coinage and would copyright it if they could (although, interestingly, the Daily Mirror used the term in 1995 to describe what Kenneth Clarke, the then chancellor of the exchequer, was embarking on). What Prescott actually said on June 6 1997 was: "I will have failed if in five years' time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it."
It was a good day to start a war, if war it is. June 6 is the anniversary of the D-Day landings in the second world war, and the defensive batteries of the motorists were rumbling as soon as Prescott had finished speaking.
John Dawson, the director of policy at the Automobile Association, keeps a bulging file of data on motorists' protests, and it started to get really fat in the summer of 1997. "That was when we first became concerned that something very aggressive was going," says Dawson. Up and down the country, market researchers for the AA were quizzing panels of people chosen at random about cars, the roads and tax, and they were observing mounting bitterness from drivers about what they believed the government was doing. And when, in December 1999, Prescott announced the Labour government's 10-year strategy for transport, the focus groups homed in on the outrage that was fuel tax.
Not that they really knew what they were complaining about until they were told. Asked what the rate of fuel tax was, only 7% of the punters knew the correct answer - 80%. The rest were flabbergasted. Half of them had guessed 50% and most of the rest went lower. Dawson says: "Once they'd discovered what it was, we just couldn't move the discussions on. There was this sense of spontaneous and absolute outrage. We got in touch with the government to say: look, you've got to take this seriously. People were fuming, and it wasn't something specific to one social class, or rural areas where public transport may be difficult. It was everywhere. What they were saying was: it just isn't reasonable."
The resentment was stoked when the focus groups were finally nudged on to the next question: how much of the revenue goes into general government spending and how much directly back to the roads? "When they were told that the ratio was 80:14, discontent rose to over 80% and it has stayed there," says Dawson. Motorists attending the AA's focus groups last year were asked to make drawings that represented their view of transport policymakers. Dawson says one of the most frequently drawn images was a jackal. "The market research people said they'd never seen such vitriol in scribbled form," he says.
Simultaneously, another front in the war was opening. While fuel tax was an emotive issue, it did not provide the physical symbol that insurrectionary movements need to rally the uncommitted. That came in the form of a device developed in 1958, for fun, by a Dutch rally driver called Maurice Gatsonides: the Gatsometer speed camera.
For several years, the Gatsos were regarded neutrally at worst, benignly at best. Two months after Labour came to power in 1997, the papers noted that a pilot camera scheme in west London had cut road fatalities by 70% between 1992 and 1997. In fact, one of the few complaints about Gatsos was that the police did not have the resources to keep enough of them in working order to deter speeding drivers. The Mail on Sunday - not a paper one would now associate with demanding the prosecution of motorists - reported on "the fiasco of speed cameras containing no film" which meant "thousands of dangerous drivers regularly speed past the roadside devices".
In 1998, however, the tide started to turn. Shortly after Gatsonides died in November of that year, it was reported that police were to be allowed to keep the money raised from speed penalties, and the wrath of motoring organisations - and their mouthpieces in the media - spilled forth. As sure as red follows amber, they argued, the police would now seek to nick anyone and everyone, so they could fill their own coffers. Richard Littlejohn, the Sun columnist who was to style those who chose to prosecute speeders as "the traffic Taliban", summed up the new orthodoxy in December 1988: "It is all about nicking people for the sake of it."
The opponents of cameras soon got their hero, a character nicknamed "Captain Gatso" who become a national figure as spokesman for Motorists Against Detection (Mad), a shadowy group that appointed itself to defend the rights of drivers. He avoids direct action himself ("I don't get my hands dirty, I'm like Gerry Adams," he says after stopping his car in south London to chat on the dedicated mobile number he gives to journalists), but the group's main tactic is smashing speed cameras - 750 destroyed so far at £32,000 a time, it claims - and getting its handiwork publicised on the internet.
A born populist, he makes a pitch about Mad being "just normal people going about our normal business" and gives his backing to the use of cameras in built-up areas. "Of course they should have them outside places like schools - but turn them off when it's holidays or kids have gone home for the day," he explains.
The reasoning of Captain Gatso and his allies is that free-born Brits are sensible enough to make their own judgements about safety in particular situations, which blanket rules such as the speed limits are too crude to govern. But that view is not widely shared. Surveys suggest that a steady 75% of us are in favour of the extensive use of speed cameras. But if Mad is mad its members have one gut feeling that is shared by many drivers and fundamental to the psychology of the motoring warriors.
"We're being got at all the time," says Captain Gatso. "They're always taking away points from our licences. Why not give some back? Look at me: I've done 14 years on motorcycles and cars and never had an endorsement, never lost a point. Don't I deserve a few points for good behaviour, maybe one every three years?"
People laugh at the idea, he says - but ask around and you'll find not all do. Tim Yeo finds it an interesting thought and it even gets a sympathetic hearing at Transport 2000, the pressure group that promotes sustainable transport and tries to encourage less car use. Steve Hounsham, Transport 2000's spokesman, says: "It's always helpful to replace a negative with a positive. You could extend the idea by giving points for proven, consistent, reduced car use, as well as good driving."
There could be other ways to reward safe drivers: silver and gold licences for motorists who complete long periods of safe driving, or car badges such as the ones carried, usually very discreetly, by members of the Institute for Advanced Motorists after they pass an extremely tough "A-level" driving test. But officialdom does not engage in that sort of cheerful thinking, says Captain Gatso. "It's 'Do this, do that and we'll punish you if you go wrong.' I could lose my licence now on just one drive up the A1, there are that many speed cameras. Then I'd lose my job as well and be living on benefits. How would the government, or anyone for that matter, benefit from that?"
Maybe the fuss about Gatsos would have died had motoring campaigners decided this was the only attempt being made to part them from their money. The problem, however, was that everywhere they turned they saw officialdom greedily eyeing their wallets. They believed the institutions of the state were cynically milking them in order to top up the public coffers. John Dawson of the AA says: "When penalties are seen as income, that's not healthy because it encourages inputs and not outcomes. The great example at the moment is the congestion charge in central London and the way the Greater London Authority is creating a culture which sees enforcement as part of revenue stream."
Tim Yeo walks the streets of London round Westminster and across the river at Lambeth, and he sees evidence of another form of penalties for drivers: parking tickets. In London, he says, parking warden services have been reorganised, with tickets generating commission payments: wardens must issue lots of tickets to make them viable - or profitable in the case of those contracted out to private firms. The Borough of Lambeth audited the new system in June and found that its private contractors had to achieve 12 fines per warden per shift, or a total of 200,000 fines a year.
"There's a danger here of collusion to create business," says Yeo. "Something has gone wrong when parking restrictions become a revenue raiser rather than a way of easing traffic flow."
Last year, drivers in London paid 5.9m fines worth a total of a record £222m, figures that promoted the usual outrage on their publication this autumn, and seem to support the notion of persecuted parkers. But Bob Macnaughton, the chief executive of National Car Parks - one of the firms that employs parking attendants and issues tickets - offered a robust defence of practices, and tried to correct some misapprehensions, when called to account by the London Evening Standard last month.
Aren't drivers justified in feeling angry, the paper asked him. "Most people who are fined have parked illegally. That's a conscious decision, not a mistake," he replied, not unreasonably. What, then, of the incentives NCP receives from the City of Westminster for issuing set numbers of tickets? "We receive no incentive payment from Westminster. This is incorrect, suppositional coverage. Contracts vary between councils. We have targets just like the police do. There are some in which the number of tickets issued is a criteria related to performance bonuses. The industry is moving away from this practice, and I would support that."
As Macnaughton suggested the role of the press has been crucial in determining the order of battle in the war on motorists. The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun - aided and abetted by other papers, such as the London Evening Standard - have led the charge. As Steve Hounsham says: "Whether the phrase 'war on motorists' was really invented by the Tories or actually the Daily Mail doesn't matter in practice; whichever thought of it first, the other eagerly leapt on it straight away."
The issue presses every favourite button for both the party and its traditional supporters in the press. It simultaneously raises the spectre of stealth taxes and the oppressive, interfering, know-all socialist state big brother; it also plays on the simple fact that the car, rivalled only perhaps by television, is the most popular piece of consumer goods in existence. Although we have not adopted American levels of identification with our vehicles, we hold them dear. Hence such cod-sociological labels as "White Van Man" or "Mondeo Man".
You could have seen how much cars can mean to people over a pint at the Three Horseshoes in the Warwickshire village of Princethorpe this August. As the sun shines, an old air-horn sounds a "parp parp" every half-minute out on the lawn. It's the loudest of an orchestra of hoots and cheers that greets every entry - from Rolls Royce Silver Cloud to Ford Capri - in the 20th Coventry Car Run.
All the length of the Fosse Way, the M1 of its day for Roman chariots, crowds turn out to cheer the parade. "Isn't there a wonderful sense of camaraderie?" says Andy Denham, who has entered his Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith for the first time. In laybys and on verges all the way to Coventry and back, crowds of people who drive much humbler cars cheer Denham and his fellow-drivers on.
The scene is a magnified version of that daily cameo where passers-by hang around a classy new car to admire its bodywork. Millions of us love cars and they have served us notably well. "The car has enhanced the lives of so many working people," says Tim Yeo. "It's given them a freedom and power over their own lives which 100 years ago only the rich enjoyed. How does anyone think they 're going to react if those in authority say: 'Here! Out of your cars and back on to public transport'?"
That is exactly the hymn sheet used by Daily Telegraph leader-writers when they say, for example, that government "hostility to motorists is ultimately an attack on ordinary people and their values". Captain Gatso chips in: "Remember there are 30 million of us running around at the wheel of cars every day and 60 million getting in and out of them." We are pretty much all motorists now.
But that is the central weakness of the whole notion of the war on motorists: why would any government attack a group that includes the clear majority of voters? Steve Hounsham dismisses the idea briskly: "There is no war at all, just sensible attempts to reduce the impact of traffic." Will John Prescott own up to declaring war? Of course not. "The government's anti-motorist? Not true. How could I be anti-car, driving two Jags? People don't pigeonhole themselves just as motorists. We are parents and pedestrians as well. People who drive cars care about pollution and their children's future too. We are not anti-car. We are pro-people."
That idea of common interests gets a particularly loud cheer in Huddersfield, where a determined woman called Mary Williams, whose mother was killed in an accident by a lorry with defective brakes, runs an exceptionally effective road safety group called Brake, which has avoided accusations of being anti-motorist by getting sponsorship and a shared website from the breakdown recovery service Green Flag.
"There is no such thing as a 'motorist ' pure and simple," says Williams. "People who drive cars also walk their kids to school or cycle at weekends. Communities are able to understand the complexities of transport issues. They don't want to be given simple labels such as 'motorist '."
When communities do settle down to discuss the issues, the package of fronts in the great war also begins to appear in a different light. Speed cameras are the most obvious example, says Williams. "There is a law setting speed limits and has been for many years. Now it is being enforced. The safety partnerships which run the cameras - police and local councils - are transparent and anyone can check where the money from fines goes: most of it straight back into maintaining and providing more cameras. Yes, a proportion goes to the Treasury and we in Brake want it all to go back into cameras. But it is a small proportion. And look at the effect of speed limits on road deaths and injuries."
Though the number is falling all the time, those who demand the right to drive fast should be reminded that 3,000 people are killed and 30,000 injured on Britain's roads every year.
The real proof that the war on motorists is a phoney war, however, lies precisely where the drivers claim they have been hit: in their wallets. The RAC's new Report on Motoring 2004 (which may not be widely read because it costs £250) acknowledges that drivers "believe that they bear higher motoring-related costs today than ever before". But, it continues: "In fact, such costs have remained virtually constant in real terms over the last 25 years, although personal expenditure on motoring has risen." The trouble is that "motorists are unable to accurately calculate the overall running costs of their cars, underestimating by as much as 50% the cost of buying and maintaining a car, as well as the depreciation of the value of the car itself."
It is a classic case of the gap between perception and reality. Between 1997 and last year, the overall cost of motoring actually fell by 4.8%. The reason so many people believe motoring is getting costlier is that it suits the proponents of the war theory not to admit the truth. How can the Daily Mail accuse the government of cynically bleeding Middle England through cheaper motoring? It cannot. Captain Gatso wants a positive approach to driving licence points. Maybe, by the same token, the 26.9% fall in the cost of buying new cars between 1997 and 2003 should be put up in lights.
Instead, the attention goes entirely to running costs, which have all risen over the same period: adjusted for inflation, vehicle tax and insurance premiums went up 26.1%, maintenance costs by 14.4% and petrol and oil by 6.5%. There is room for a grouse at the pub there, certainly, but that should be in the context of an informed debate in which the overall drop in motorists' bills is acknowledged. However, if peace is to be negotiated, the settlement needs to be based on what Prescott said seven years ago.
Remember the actual words of his alleged declaration of war: "I will have failed if in five years' time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it." He needs holding to it, according to just about every transport lobby in the country, because the public transport part of the deal just is not happening. From 1997 to 2003, while motoring costs fell, the price of bus travel rose by 8.2% and train travel by 3%.
That is is what keeps the motorists on the defensive over their cars, says John Dawson of the AA. "People react differently to the idea of leaving their cars at home when public transport is seen to be working," he says. "There 's nothing worse in this debate than bike lanes not used by bikes or bus lanes without buses. But put in something like the Croydon light rail system, and the whole idea is accepted and understood."
The same applies to draconian traffic restrictions in historic cities - when they are combined with well-organised park-and-ride schemes. York and Oxford are good examples of anti-congestion measures being accepted and working. And one of the patterns for the future is being pieced together in that other great university centre, Cambridge.
Visit Dr Steve Platt by car, and you will spend a very long time trying to make a right turn into Mill Road, the city's funky drag of good, cheap restaurants and offbeat shops. Although Platt's consultancy is called Car (standing for Cambridge Architectural Research), he sensibly commutes from his central Cambridge home by bike. He and his colleagues have been closely involved with an attempt involving all local interests to sort out some of the city's planning problems, including transport. It's called Cambridge Futures but, if it succeeds, it could be all our futures as well.
The thinking behind Cambridge Futures is refreshingly simple and clear. Platt says there was an initial recognition that "we're all basically nimbies and selfish - wanting it both ways. What was needed was to get everyone together to discuss all the possible scenarios and alternatives. To get the public to engage with the problem and give an informed opinion. That way, we'd get a strategy for the future rather than the selfish kneejerk reaction: I don't want to stop using my car."
And that sort of strategy seems likely to emerge, without denying that the wonderful invention pioneered by Mr Ford, Herr Daimler and the others will always be most people's real first choice. Because traffic now clogs up central Cambridge, reality has bitten, says Platt. "Town people marginally go for congestion charging and countryside people for a new ring road. But both groups are in favour of reducing car use and promoting walking, cycling and public transport." Distant rumbles of joy from John Prescott.
The great hope for ending the war - whether real or imagined - is that picking the best ideas from each side really does add up to the most promising transport future for us all. The public's rival suggestions were tested to the limit by transport specialists and planners and the result was this: on its own, better public transport didn't score highly on cost, user benefit or overall social return; nor, on its own, did the plan for a big ring road; nor, on its own, did congestion charging. But together, with each option contributing to a combined plan, they all did.
The motoring warriors, or phoney warriors, are agreed on one thing: that accentuating the positive would help draw the sting from this debate. Tannoy the fall in car prices. Give Captain Gatso and Steve Hounsham their licence plus-points for good driving or reduced car use. "I'd expected people to be negative about all this," says Platt, leafing through responses from people in Cambridge who had really sat down and thought things through. "But I was very pleasantly surprised at how optimistic they were."
-- ### --
J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities