Motorway tolling in the UK is doomed to failure according to a recent report by the Transport Research Laboratory. The number of drivers trying to avoid toll payments will, say the authors of the report, overwhelm the machinery of enforcement, at least in the early stages of the introduction of a tolling system. The document, compiled at the request of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) and based on a survey of driver opinions, claims that 3% of drivers will attempt to avoid paying proposed motorway tolls, no matter how certain they are to be detected. The findings follow the publication of a government Green Paper that again set out the possibilities for the introduction of direct charging for the use of a hitherto “free” facility, first muted some years ago. The key factors in any decision to attempt to avoid payment will, says the report, include the perceived opportunities for committing the offence, its likely benefits, the needs and desires of the potential offenders, and the cost. The survey, based on interviews with 97 randomly selected drivers was designed to obtain an indication of the willingness or otherwise of drivers to avoid tolls on motorways. It found that the proportion prepared to go to “considerable trouble” or “a lot of trouble” to avoid payment dropped from 4% to 3% as the probability of detection rose, but the authors concluded that even a figure of less than 3% would be sufficient to pose “a very real risk that the machinery of enforcement could be overwhelmed, at least in the early stages of the introduction of tolls”. Business or high mileage drivers, in particular, were thought to be likely to try to avoid payment. And while the technology already exists to ensure that no vehicle is able to escape detection, that is a long way from saying that all drivers avoiding payment would be caught. When using Gatso-style cameras to detect speeding, the police currently choose to deal only with the worst offenders, and set the threshold at around 20 mph above the speed limit. Even so, they are on record as admitting that they cannot cope with the number of offenders and there is no reason to believe that tolling will be any different. As one senior police source in London said, “With tolling, we will be dealing with the same sort of people who speed or who avoid payment of their road tax.” Motorway tolling is likely to rely on a twin-track approach to detection. In the first instance, new cars may be required to carry a transponder-like device that will automatically inform the “intelligent” motorway gantries when a driver is using a particular stretch of road. Cars without the transponder unit would be detected by video units which, like the anti-speeding cameras, will record the motorway users’ number-plate. Even given the very high margin of latitude given to speeding motorists in London and elsewhere, around 11% refuse to pay the fixed penalty charge and have to be issued with a summons – a time consuming process for a police service already fully stretched in other directions. In a separate report, the British Transport Research laboratory found that tolling on motorways would lead to increased congestion and a resultant increase in the risk of accidents as traffic queued on the exit ramps to avoid paying tolls. And all this comes even before any decision has been reached on what drivers can expect to pay.
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