Are British drivers being priced off the road?

Posted on December 23rd, 2011 by David Williams MBE

Are British drivers being priced off the road?

Picture by Highways Agency

Safety experts warn that rising taxes and insurance premiums could turn motoring into a ‘middle class’ pursuit

Picture the scene: a busy British road divided into two lanes. One of the lanes is filled with gleaming, expensive cars; no Reliant Robins or rusty white vans in sight. The drivers are all middle or upper class and there are few young faces among them.

In the other lane, cyclists travel far more slowly than the car drivers. The cyclists are both young and old. Many of them have had to take up jobs within easy cycling distance as they can no longer afford to commute by car.

This class-divided vision of the future is one which several motoring associations have warned could become reality unless motoring is made more affordable for the masses.

Road safety associations such as GEM Motoring Assist are also worried that some drivers will consider driving without insurance to save money – a highly dangerous move which would compromise the safety of the members the organisation provides breakdown cover to.

Keith Peat of the Association of British Drivers told the Daily Mail: “We have heard of cases where people have had to give up work because they can no longer afford to drive in.”

The AA is also concerned by the rising cost of motoring. A spokesman told the same newspaper: “There is a real danger that motoring is being wound back to the 1960s and 1970s, when it was by and large the preserve of the middle classes.”

The campaign to alleviate the financial burden on motorists has won support from surprising quarters. Tory MP Robert Halfon successfully spearheaded a recent campaign to delay January’s proposed increase in fuel duty – Chancellor George Osborne will instead raise the tax by 3p in August 2012.However, Mr Halfon is still not satisfied. He said: “We need to put pressure on oil companies to reduce prices at the pumps and we need to go further in cutting petrol tax.”

There is also concern about how petrol tax is being spent. Department for Transport (DfT) statistics which were released on 15th December 2011, show that less than £1 in every £3 collected in motoring taxes is allocated to road maintenance.

Rising insurance costs and young driversPaul O’Sullivan, head of road user safety at the Department of Transport, has pointed out that rising insurance premiums are also forcing Brits off the roads – and deterring young drivers from getting behind the wheel in the first place.Attending a gathering of insurance industry experts and academics this week (Monday 19th December 2011), Mr O’Sullivan said: “Why are insurance premiums for younger drivers going up, when the number of collisions involving these drivers are going down?”

Despite the fact that collisions involving young drivers were halved between 2009 and 2010, AA Insurance estimated as recently as August that premiums for drivers in the 17 to 22 age bracket have risen by 80 per cent over the past two years. These rising costs must have influenced December’s DFT statistics which show that there was:

• A 1.6 per cent fall in traffic levels between 2009 and 2010

• That this was the third year in a row that the level has fallen

• That this is the first ‘hat-trick’ of traffic level falls since records began

There is no record of how many young British drivers are giving up driving but records have been kept in America. In 1978, 50 per cent of all 16-year-olds in the US had obtained their first driving licence. US Transportation figures show that this figure was just 30 per cent in 2008.

An interesting recent article on the BBC News website suggests that this decline can be explained by US teenagers’ increasing preference for social networking; almost half now favour surfing chat rooms and forums rather than cruising around the streets during their leisure time.

Whether British teenagers share US teenagers’ preference for Facebook over driving has not been explored by researchers on this side of the ‘pond’.

However, it is clear that the DfT thinks the trend of decreasing traffic levels on British roads is just a short-term one and that by 2035 there will be 43 per cent more motor vehicle traffic flowing through our road systems.

With no end to the rise in petrol prices in sight it is strange to think that traffic levels will increase. Could it be that some motorists who face being priced off the roads will take the law into their own hands?

Transport Select Committee research has shown that an increasing number of drivers have considered taking to the roads without insurance –  a dangerous short cut which could push up the price of premiums for all law-abiding drivers.