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It is encouraging to hear that the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Chief Secretary to the Treasury are all so keen to see drivers benefit from lower pump prices.

So keen are they that falling oil prices are reflected on the forecourts that they have said to petrol and diesel distributors that they are watching them “very carefully”.

But whatever the imperfections of the commercial fuel market – and the OFT decided in January 2013 that they were not enough to result in a referral to the Competition Commission – would our political leaders not be better off spending as much time scrutinising their own actions as those of private companies?

The fact remains that well over 60% of the price of fuel at the pumps is down to taxation. Actually, because fuel duty is levied at a fixed amount, the proportion of tax increases as oil prices fall.

Drivers will be grateful that the Chancellor has frozen fuel duty over a number of years but that does not mean there is no more he could do. When compared to other EU countries UK pre tax fuel prices are amongst the cheapest. After tax they are amongst the most expensive.

In the UK, tax – levied for a reason that is not clear: is it an environmental tax, general revenue raiser, or designed to cover all the external costs of driving including congestion and road safety? – remains the biggest driver of fuel prices. This explains why significant drops in the oil price are not going to be similarly mirrored at petrol stations.

What’s more, the Chancellor said in the 2011 budget that if oil prices fall below $75 a barrel, then he will reintroduce a fuel duty escalator:

“The Government will abolish the fuel duty escalator and replace it with a fair fuel stabiliser. When oil prices are high, as now, fuel duty will increase by inflation only. UK oil and gas production is more profitable at such times, so it is fair that companies should contribute more. The Supplementary Charge on oil and gas production will therefore increase to 32 per cent from midnight tonight.

“In future years, if the oil price falls below a set trigger price on a sustained basis, the Government will reduce the Supplementary Charge back towards 20 per cent on a staged and affordable basis while prices remain low. Fuel duty will increase by RPI plus 1 penny per litre in each such year. The Government believes that a trigger price of $75 per barrel would be appropriate, and will set a final level and mechanism after seeking the views of oil and gas companies, and motoring groups.

“As the increased rate of Supplementary Charge will only apply when prices are high, the Government will restrict tax relief for decommissioning expenditure to the 20 per cent rate to avoid incentivising accelerated decommissioning. There will be no restrictions to decommissioning relief below this level over the course of this Parliament, and the Government will work with the industry with the aim of announcing further, longer-term certainty on decommissioning at Budget 2012. Recognising the importance of continued investment in the North Sea, including in marginal gas fields, the Government will also consider with the industry the case for introducing a new category of field that would qualify for field allowance.”

Not surprisingly the Chancellor has not been reminding people of these comments recently.

Yet, ironically, what drivers gain from falling oil prices, they are set to lose in above inflation rises in fuel duty. If the cost of oil drops just a few more dollars and the Chancellor sticks to those 2011 proposals then fuel duty could well rise by about 2p a litre.

The problem for Mr Osborne is that he is sending our mixed messages. At the Conservative party conference in 2013 he pledged that providing he could find the savings to pay for it he would freeze fuel duty until the election, but as we have seen he has also committed to hikes in duty above the rate of inflation if the oil price tumbles. Which is it to be?

What is the most common vehicle defect causing accidents? Braking failures? No – braking comes a close second to tyre defects at 36% (braking defects at 31%).

That was one of the headline messages at a parliamentary briefing hosted by PACTS, TyreSafe and TFI.

In 2013, more than 2.2 million MOT failures were due to tyre defects. TyreSafe found that of tyres tested after removal for replacement 57% where found already to be illegal.

Have motorists become complacent? Are they too reliant on their vehicles to inform them when something is wrong? The majority of cars will tell you when the fuel tank is close to empty, when the oil level is low and when the tyres need air. But – for the moment at least – cars do not inform you about dangerous tread depths.

Checking the tread depth is simple – yet 1 in 5 motorists have never done it. Take a 20 pence piece and place it within the tread of the tyre – coincidentally, the raised edge around the side of the 20 pence piece is 1.6 mm – if you can see the raised edge of the coin than your tyres require immediate replacement.

The sale of part worn tyres was also highlighted at the briefing as a serious problem – the majority of tyres checked for resale as part worn were not found to have been certified as fit for purpose, and many were found to have reached illegal tread depths.

Stuart Jackson from TyreSafe explained that tyre defects were associated with 981 persons killed or seriously injured in the 5 year period to 2013, over £0.4 billion, while the Highways Agency’s Stuart Lovett says 66,500 incidents related to tyre defects occurred on the motorways network in the 18 months from April 2013 to September 2014. This amounts to approximately 100 incidents a day – and that is without considering any roads outside the motorway network.

This is not just a HGV issue either – 63% of motorway tyre breakdown issues involved a car, with only 21% involving a HGV.

The focuses for improving tyre safety include enforcement and education.

Enforcement is not a simple matter – police budgets are stretched. But December will see the start of a project funded by TfL for the enforcement of tread depth regulations, amongst others, on HGVs. Education involves informing people about the real dangers of bald tyres, how often they should be checking them and the 20 pence piece method for doing so. TyreSafe Safety Month, occurring last month is a part of this education process.

At a recent European Transport Safety Council conference a question was posed about whether driver distraction should be considered on a par with speeding, drink-driving and seat belt wearing traffic offences.

Road safety statistics suggest 9 out of 10 collisions are due to human errors, with the NHTSA (in the US) estimating that 25% of collisions are due to driver distraction. But what is distracting drivers behind the wheel and do these distractions affect everyone in the same way?

While there is much more research required in order to be able to definitely answer these questions, there is general consensus that driver distraction is a major transport safety issue, requiring serious transport policy and research attention.

It was suggested at this conference that a distracted driver is 4 times more likely to be involved in an accident behind the wheel. Mobile phones are not the only source of distraction behind the wheel either; eating, smoking or even changing a CD are but a few distractions which can remove a driver’s concentration from the road long enough to result in an accident.

But it is due to the ever increasing use of mobile phones to make calls, send text messages, take photos and use social media which have led to these concerns for driver distraction. Advertising campaigns play hypothetical – and sometimes even real – stories of the consequences of driver distraction through our televisions on a daily basis. Yet, drivers continue to take these risks.

But you use a hands-free devise?

Research presented at this conference suggested that the use of hands-free devices does little to improve driver concentration, although they did tend to prevent drivers from preforming other tasks which demand more of the driver’s concentration (for example texting or eating).

Until autonomy can be a safe and practical reality, driver distraction must be minimised. Are advertising campaigns alone capable of doing this? Are heavier penalties and stricter enforcement the answer? Or does this issue require the more drastic action of making vehicles mobile phone signal black-spots?

The dirtiest diesels will have to pay £12.50 to enter central London under plans unveiled by Transport for London.

The fee would be in addition to that levied for entering the congestion charge zone.

TfL has launched a consultation on the ultra-low emissions zone proposals which, if passed, would operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and come into operation on 7 September 2020.

From that date diesel cars will need to conform to the latest Euro 6 emission standards which all cars sold after 1 January 2015 will have to meet.

Petrol cars will have to comply with older 2006 Euro 4 standards.

TfL gives this explanation for the need of the ULEZ.

“London’s air quality has improved significantly in recent years and is now considered compliant for all but one air pollutant for which the European Union has set legal limits. This pollutant is nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which has impacts on public health. London is currently in breach of legal limits. An equivalent of 4,300 deaths in London is attributed to air quality related illness. The Capital also faces challenging targets to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

In the consultation TfL made a prediction about how much NOx each category of vehicle would produce in 2020:

TfL air quality consultation

Chart source: TfL consultation.

 

Responding to the consultation, Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said:

“We welcome this measure to tackle poor air quality.

“What drivers want is certainty and time to react to rule changes. These proposals offer both. But by TfL’s own admission, taxis, freight vehicles and its own buses will pose as big a problem as private diesel cars. The Mayor’s challenge will be to win over businesses to these plans.

“A major question is whether the latest new vehicle emissions standards live up to expectations. Previous Euro standards have looked good in the lab but have not delivered on the road.

“Where Boris leads others are likely to follow. Town and city halls across the country will look to London to see how these proposals work and be asking whether they should be doing the same thing.”

Earlier in 2014 the RAC Foundation published a report by environmental consultants Ricardo AEA summarising the air quality problems caused by road transport and how they might be tackled.

The Foundation suggested that a scrappage scheme be considered to take some of the older, most polluting diesels off the road, something the Mayor of London has also called for.

 

FIRST the good news. Death and serious injury on Scottish roads has fallen sharply over recent years.

Now the bad. Based on a five-year average, 116 people are still killed or badly hurt annually because of drunk drivers.

There is reason to believe a lower drink-drive limit would make a significant dent in this total. That’s not us saying so, but Sir Peter North who, at the behest of the Westminister government, carried out an exhaustive review of the subject back in 2010.

He noted that the chances of having an accident increases exponentially the more you drink; that is, significantly faster than the rate at which alcohol is consumed.

In his recommendations, Sir Peter called for a reduction in the legal blood alcohol limit, something ministers in London ignored but those in Edinburgh noted and are acting on.

Importantly this puts Holyrood in line with public opinion. And that will help when it comes to enforcement. Most laws are self-enforcing and it helps if most people understand and support them.

Which is not to say this change does not need proper policing. People must believe they are likely to be caught if they transgress. This should not be seen as over zealousness but a sign that the new rules are being treated seriously by the authorities. By the same token, it is hard to see how a lesser penalty could be imposed for a new, lower drink-drive limit than for the one it is replacing. This would undermine ministers’ credibility when they say a change is the right thing.

Arguments are made that cutting the drink-drive limit will threaten rural hospitality businesses. This might be true but the drinks industry itself actively promotes responsible drinking and backs designated driver schemes.

This change comes ahead of the festive period, the traditional time for anti drink-driving campaigns. The statistics suggest such campaigns have been successful because December actually records some of the lowest monthly figures for alcohol related road deaths. The challenge for the authorities is to promote year-round compliance.

Not for the first time, individual countries of the Union rather than the UK government are leading the way in road safety initiatives. Witness the graduated licensing rules coming into force in Northern Ireland to try and tackle young driver deaths. You can bet legislators south of the Border will closely watch what happens next.

This article was first published in the Scotsman on Saturday 25 October 2014.

Ministers claim the rate of evasion for Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) is 0.6%, the lowest level ever.

So assuming this rate is uniform across all types of vehicle, and looking just at cars, what does that mean in absolute terms?

At the end of June 2014 there were 29.7 million cars licensed in Great Britain, suggesting there were about 180,000 cars driving around without a tax disc.

(Of course, as of 1 October this year the paper tax disc was abolished, but not the tax.)

Using an average VED figure of £144 that means VED evasion is costing the country roughly £26 million a year.

Ministers say that the abolition of the physical tax disc is unlikely to change the rate of offending and in fact the DVLA “… has not relied on the paper tax disc in enforcement of vehicle excise duty for some time. The DVLA and the police largely rely on the DVLA’s electronic vehicle register and tools like the Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras to ensure that payments have been made.”

Which sort of begs the question: if getting rid of the tax disc is such a good idea now why wasn’t it done ages ago?

P.S. Worth remembering that two-thirds of new cars registered in 2013 paid not VED in their first year.

Paris v London public transport passenger numbers

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