Error parsing XSLT file: \xslt\FacebookOpenGraph.xslt Richard Schooling's Blog: March
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Richard Schooling's Blog: March

Date: 30 March 2007

Richard Schooling

Wales' workplace smoking ban starts next Monday amid dire warnings of chaos and meltdown for fleets who, unlike in Scotland, have to incorporate cars into this brave new smoke-free world.

29 March 2007: Last gasp

Wales' workplace smoking ban starts next Monday amid dire warnings of chaos and meltdown for fleets who, unlike in Scotland, have to incorporate cars into this brave new smoke-free world.

I'm sorry. I should have said "smokefree" there rather than smoke-free, since the ban regulations prefer that unlovely and legislatively-loaded new concatenation.

"Smokefree" as a single word is one of those pieces of newspeak that the authorities love to dream up. It invests humble cars or vans or buildings with legally enforceable atmospheric status and freshly-minted criminal potential. It makes company cars into places that may be entered at will by all kinds of interested parties (including environmental health officers and port officials, apparently) searching for tell-tale butts and missing signage.

"Smokefree" is a newly created word for a newly created world where something that was previously achieved by consent and company policy becomes a matter of criminal law backed up by fixed penalties and potential fines of £2500.

Not that many among the non-smoking majority of workers won't welcome the ban, of course. It will, after all, spare an awful lot of people from effects of secondhand smoke.

Fleets will benefit because more vehicles' RVs will profit from an absence of nicotine stains and fabric burns. It's quite possible, too, that the fears of mass confusion over applying the ban to company cars will turn out to be exaggerated.

Having said that, the regulations around vehicles are surprisingly loosely drafted. The core of the law is clear enough but the Government has left a number of grey areas around the edges where fleets will have to find their own way.

I think a lot of firms will decide that their only safe course of action is to prohibit smoking in all company vehicles, whether or not they are affected by the Government ban.

I wouldn't be surprised if this was a deliberate ploy by the ban planners. Banning smoking in workplace buildings affects smokers mainly during their working hours. With cars, the ban lasts around the clock; catching not only drivers but also their relatives and friends, who mustn't light up in smokefree cars at any time either.

Why should the Government take the blame for this extra imposition on car users when, with a touch of ambiguity and doublethink, it can lay the issue at the door of firms and fleet managers? After all, the first rule of politics is always to get someone else to do your dirty work.

Come to think of it, cloaking the rules with a layer of newspeak and doublethink makes a very appropriate overture to the start of the ban in Wales next week. George Orwell coined both terms in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, if you remember, opened with the line "It was a bright cold April day, and the clocks were striking thirteen..."

If it's a bright cold day on Monday and you're in Wales wondering where to put the no-smoking signs in your company cars, do count the chimes.

Until next week.


23 March 2007: Predictive taxing

Gordon's last stand at the despatch box as Chancellor on Wednesday was a masterclass in the art of spin and timing. He finished with a flourish, pulling that income tax rabbit out of his hat to leave his audience smiling and - more importantly - willing to forget some of the tricks from earlier in the show.

For example, magicians use magic words. Mr Brown's magic word on Wednesday was 'align'. If you say it in the right way, it allows you to present a £15 rise in road tax as a mere £5 rise. If you 'align' something, you don't have to say that it will cost car owners three times more than the figure you just mentioned.

For a boring tax, VED attracted a surprising amount of hoopla in the run-up to the budget with uncannily accurate (it turned out) predictions of a £300 or £400 increase in road tax for so-called 'gas guzzlers'. In spin terms, that was the cape-flapping, smoke and mirrors thing that magicians do to distract you just before they do their trick.

Sure enough, on Wednesday Gordon Brown announced a hike to £300 for Band G VED plus a £5 rise for the majority of cars and vans.

Oh well, you might think, £5 - could be worse.

Indeed, £5 was all he said at the despatch box and all that was mentioned in the official press release. But he did use the 'align' word before moving on to the next subject.

The Budget 'aligned' VED on petrol and diesel cars because "the differential in nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions for new cars is expected to fall to close to zero once Euro4 and Euro5 emission standards become mandatory".

That's right. VED rates have been aligned NOW because diesel and petrol emissions will BEGIN to get on to level pegging around 2011 or 2015. Is that what they mean by far-sighted Government?

Wait a moment, though. Let's try to be positive. At least this seems to suggest that the Government really is operating a long term strategy to incentivise motorists to choose cleaner cars.

Under Euro4 and Euro5, diesels will, thanks to car makers' Herculean efforts, be as clean as petrol cars in terms of NO and particulates. Remember, it was those nasty oxides and particles that led the Government to slap a £10 road tax penalty on diesels in 2001.

So, to put its green taxation policy into action, the Government penalises 'dirty' diesels until they start to be as clean as petrol cars. Then it takes away the penalty.

Not on your life. What the Government did on Wednesday was raise petrol road tax UP to the diesel level. Owners of petrol cars in the four main bands saw their VED go up by £15. That was £10 to make up the old gap with diesel VED plus £5 for the Budget day increase.

Brilliant! Simply by making deft use of the word 'align', Gordon gives petrol car owners a tax increase on a tax increase in a single Budget.

So, what an education Budget 2007 turned out to be.

First, we were introduced to a new kind of taxation: predictive tax. This is where your tax changes today in direct response to a situation that won't exist until several years in the future.

Secondly, we discovered Gordon's Law of Inverse Consequences. Here, drivers of petrol cars get clobbered hardest on VED because diesel cars, which are currently dirtier, are predicted to one day get cleaner.

You couldn't make it up.

No doubt the Treasury has seen the opportunity to do the same thing to company car benefit tax. Under the predictive taxation principle, the faraway prospect of Euro5 could become the perfect reason to "align" BIK on petrol and diesel cars from next year.

But we won't see the diesel tax come down by 3%, will we?

Thursday's Budget also heralded important changes to the AMAP system and to capital allowances on cars, but those are for another time.

Until then.


16 March 2007: Let me take you by the hand ...and price you off the streets of London

Was I dreaming or did I see Ken Livingstone on TV the other day announcing a plan to cover most of London with a road pricing scheme within five years?

Well, it wasn't so much announcing a plan as making a remark during a BBC documentary about traffic congestion; but he definitely said something to the effect that 2010 was a bit soon for road pricing for Greater London but 2012 should be doable.

This was a few days after the PM had emailed a million and a half anti-road-toll petitioners promising not to do anything hasty about national road pricing, so Ken might have just been having a joke at Tony Blair's expense.

Will London really get a road pricing system around the outside of the present congestion charging zone? If it does, what will it mean for the rest of the country?

Whether Greater London actually needs a road pricing scheme hardly comes into it: it's a question of whether it can be done and what the political fall-out would be. The scheme looks to be technically feasible, and the Mayor may calculate that it won't be too much of a vote-loser if he buys off residents with big discounts.

Transport for London has spent months testing a system that tracks vehicles by using roadside beacons that pick up signals from credit-card-sized 'smart tags' on the windscreen. It says it can already detect 99.5% of passing vehicles accurately. In contrast, the number plate recognition cameras around the C-charge zone only detect 70% (oh really?).

My guess is that road pricing can be done in London, so it will be done. Business car drivers will have to pay up or use public transport. Van and truck operators in the capital will have no option but to factor in higher operating costs.

Will that be the thin end of the wedge for the rest of the UK? Actually, I don't think so. Apparently the tag and beacon system only works at urban traffic speeds, so it won't be any good for motorways and trunk roads.

It looks as if satellite tracking is the most likely solution for routes outside cities - and according to TfL it won't be viable for road charging for at least another 10 years.

That might be enough time for politicians of all parties to abandon what many people see as their preposterous fixation with the idea of curing congestion by putting a price on our streets. However, I won't be holding my breath.

Until next time


14 March 2007: Learning the hard way

Something that transport minister Stephen Ladyman said last week caught my eye. The Government, he told a conference organised by RoSPA, intends to "challenge those people who want to drive badly".

This intrigued me. Politicians rarely risk upsetting Britain's 30 million motorised voters by implying that they might drive badly, even by mistake, let alone deliberately. And some drivers are easily upset: one young man on the M6 reportedly burst into tears when police pulled him over for using a hand-held mobile phone during a crackdown to mark the first day of tougher penalties for the offence.

Young men, it turned out, were mainly who Mr Ladyman had in mind when he spoke about bad driving. It is well known that they pose higher risks to themselves, passengers and other road users. Statistically, males aged 17-20 are more than 10 times as likely to be killed or seriously injured behind the wheel compared with drivers from other age groups.

One suspects that they are also at least 10 times less likely to vote in elections compared with older drivers. Nevertheless, Mr Ladyman was making a serious point: Britain's highest-risk drivers (at least, the male ones) also happen to be those who are closest to completing driver training and taking their driving tests.

So there is going to be a complete overhaul of the way new drivers are taught and tested, with the aim of instilling better know-how and preventing candidates with bad attitudes from getting a licence.

Significantly, the proposed new process could lead to "further driving qualifications and better employment opportunities".

Could he mean new licensing requirements for drivers of vehicles like vans and minibuses that are currently covered by ordinary car licences?

It definitely looks as if a big shake-up is on the cards, and not just for bad drivers who were born in the last 20 or so years.

9 March 2007: Sensorship

Being fortunate enough to drive a car fitted with parking sensors, I can see why fleet drivers have rated them as their most popular accessory. I'm sure I'm not the only person who finds that parking spaces are getting smaller every year.

Sensors are not just for tight spots of course. Play your cars right and you can have sensors to help you with just about anything.

Turning a corner? A sensor will angle your headlamps accordingly. Getting a little out of shape on a wet road? Sensors will relay data to the ESP system until all your wheels are back in sync.

At a more mundane level, virtually every modern car engine is completely dependent on an under-bonnet army of sensors feeding data to its management system. Mostly, they just do their job unseen and unheeded but the big motoring story last week must be the bunch of oxygen sensors - motivated perhaps by jealousy of their limelight-hogging parking assistant cousins - that hit the headlines.

News cameras pointed at serious-faced mechanics holding up gadgets that looked like a cross between a spark plug and a fountain pen. A sharp intake of breath, followed by an explanation of how dodgy petrol was bringing oxygen sensors across the South East to their knees ("and by the way, guvnor, these things are like hen's teeth at the moment so I doubt if we'll be able to get one for you this side of a week next Tuesday").

3,500 motorists have e-mailed the BBC claiming their cars might have been affected by allegedly contaminated fuel but the question of what if anything was wrong with the petrol remains a mystery.

If anything the story highlights just how much we've come to take fuel quality for granted. The petrol retailers' spokesman said he couldn't remember anything like it in the last 30 years and I believe him.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, there will be a great deal of fall-out over who pays for putting the affected cars back on the road. In the meantime, I am now even more aware and more appreciative of the sensors in my car.