A strange news story appeared in the UK media on 18 July. It seems that faceless bureaucrats in Darlington were persecuting a motorist by not allowing her to use her own driveway. But, when you read on, a different story emerges. The house owner hadn’t checked with the council, or sought planning permission, to build a driveway entrance directly on a school crossing supervised by a lollipop lady. For some reason, the Daily Mail didn’t reflect on the ten young children killed and seriously injured on British roads every week in the UK.
But this story illustrates a common trope that appears on all news sites, every day, in various forms – the myth of the war on motorists. If we’re to believe a tabloid press frenzy funded by the road lobby, all over the UK, every day, heartless local authority bureaucrats and parking companies are transgressing our Magna Carta rights by building Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), clamping cars and issuing unjustified parking fines. Although whenever you research any of these stories in any detail, in almost all cases drivers had been using the LTN as a rat-run, ignoring clear signs that they were parking illegally, or disregarding clearly signposted time-limits.
And it’s catnip to journalists when somebody is prosecuted for driving just over the speed limit. But guys, we either believe in obeying the law or we don’t, right?
Fuel duty protests
The fake war on motorists reached its zenith with the fuel duty protests in September 2000, in the run-up to the 2001 General Election. The protests were coordinated by a “grassroots” organisation called Farmers for Action (FFA), which was an “astroturfing” operation run by Conservative Party activist Mark McGregor. FFA successfully exploited the myth of the war on motorists, and blackmailed the Labour government into freezing fuel duty. 23 years later, the Taxpayers Alliance, and other Tufton Street shill groups are still spreading the myth that UK fuel tax is the highest in Europe when it’s actually far lower than our major competitors. UK fuel duty has now been frozen for 14 straight years since 2011. If a war really is being fought, it’s clear to see who’s winning.
Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)
We all agree on the need to tackle air pollution in our large cities because it’s killing thousands of people ever year. But we need to do this in a gradual, nuanced way that doesn’t penalise motorists. That’s exactly what London Mayor Boris Johnson did when he announced the first ULEZ in Central London in 2015, giving drivers five years, and a generous scrappage scheme, to replace polluting vehicles. His successor Sadiq Khan brought the introduction date forward to 2019, but it was an instant success. Six months after the introduction of ULEZ, NOx levels had been reduced by 20%, and 95% of cars met the standard. However, things started to go wrong in October 2021, when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps imposed the extension of ULEZ out to the North and South Circular Roads. The main incentive for drivers to replace their cars, the scrappage scheme, was reduced from £7,000 per vehicle to £2,000. Under the original scheme, an unlimited number of van owners could apply for scrappage, but this time the van budget was capped, and the cash ran out. Shapps’ action gave ULEZ a bad name at the time, which the Conservative Party and the right wing media have since ruthlessly exploited in the run up to the next ULEZ extension in August 2023. I’m not sure whether a decision to deny clean air to five million more people will prove electorally popular in the long run but, in the short term, the Conservative Party won their London by election on the strength of a 180° policy switch on ULEZ extension, which then emboldened Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to scrap the UK’s Net Zero 2050 commitments and argue in the Daily Telegraph that he was ending a war on motorists which has never existed. A responsible politician wouldn’t indulge in this culture-war, knowing that opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 15-minute cities can be a gateway drug to dangerous far-right conspiracy theories.
Light touch regulation
When you reach the age of seventy, you’ve got to re-apply for your driving licence. At this stage, a basic health check might be useful, so that a medical professional could identify any issues which would make you a dangerous driver. But the road lobby has prevented such nanny state bureaucracy. Instead, you just complete a brief questionnaire in which you self-declare any health problems. A simple health check could have identified this driver’s dementia or this driver’s blindness before they killed pedestrians. This GP could have notified the DVLA of this driver’s unfitness to drive, but that’s not allowed because it would have been an infringement of his civil liberties and part of the war on motorists.
We certainly don’t wage a war against car meets, a so-called rite of passage in which young drivers pointlessly race up and down car parks and doughnut car tyres down to their metal threads. Occasionally the police will pay a visit to the Teesside branch of the Jeremy Clarkson Appreciation Society and slap a few people on the wrist. It’s all good harmless fun though, until the cars spin out of control and kill people. But, worse than this, these practice sessions are then taken out on to public roads with lethal consequences in the form of road racing. Examples from just this past few days are here, here, here and here. The strangest part of all of this is when newspapers report on these terrible events as though they are unexplained, mysterious tragedies which could never have been anticipated or prevented. The recent, tragic death of a driver and his passenger in Guisborough illustrates this. The incident was reported to have “claimed” lives as though it was the vengeance of some cruel and erratic god.
So are the police in Teesside waging war on motorists? That’s highly unlikely. Firstly, if we actually had a decent number of police officers in Teesside that might be an issue. But Cleveland police are still recovering from the biggest austerity headcount reduction in the UK. The Chief Constable might wish to persecute motorists, but he’s got other things on his mind. And the Cleveland and Durham Joint Roads Policing Unit spends time making a “reality” TV show called Police Interceptors. Back in the world of actual reality they don’t achieve much, and the driving experience in the UK is a free-for-all that is more like the Wild West than ever. But maybe some day one of the Police Interceptors will become a TV star, so it could all be worth it. Probably not this one, though. However, their new series has jumped the shark, in my humble opinion