Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence



  Vehicle design has been regulated since the early days of motoring, but the vast potential of vehicle regulation as an instrument of transport policy has so far hardly been tapped. The explanation of this paradox is that vehicle regulation has not been based on a systematic set of principles. Instead, regulations have been introduced in an ad hoc way to deal with the particular nuisances which from time to time have aroused public concern.

  What principle should vehicle regulation be based on? The following seems appropriate:

  No vehicle should consume more non-renewable resources, in its construction, use or ultimate disposal, or cause more danger, pollution, noise or other nuisance than is required for the performance of its function.

  Part of the function of a vehicle is to provide a reasonable degree of comfort for its occupants at all appropriate speeds. A conventional car, for example, should be able to cruise comfortably at or near the national speed limit.

  This principle would have five important implications. First, the use on the public highway of any vehicle capable of exceeding the national speed limit, except perhaps by a small margin, would be forbidden. Even with the present national speed of 70 mph, the effect in reducing the incidence and severity of accidents, fuel consumption, noise and pollution would be considerable. If the national speed limit were reduced to 55 mph, which according to the Policy Studies Institute report Speed Control and Transport Policy may still be too high, these benefits would be still greater.

  Second, all vehicles would be fitted with variable speed limiters, perhaps operated by the driver, perhaps switched on automatically by signals from roadside equipment, which would ensure that they could not break the speed limit on roads where it was lower than the national limit. This is of particular importance because the accident rate on these roads is far higher than on motorways and dual carriageways where the national speed limit applies.

  Third, the present excessive powers of acceleration would be cut back. They are not necessary and contribute in an important way to all the present dangers and nuisances.

  Fourth, cars would be much lighter than at present. It is an anomaly that the vehicle should weigh so much more than its load. Modern materials of construction and new methods of propulsion make it possible to construct far lighter vehicles. The major gain is likely to be in reduced fuel consumption and pollution, but lighter cars would also reduce the severity of accidents.

  Fifth, the shape and materials of cars and other road vehicles would be such as to minimise the damage to pedestrians and cyclists if there were a collision.

  As well as more civilised conventional vehicles, there is a need for a new type of car and a new type of lorry designed for local use. A significant proportion of the cars now on the road are used only as local runabouts; it would probably be better for their users, and certainly for everyone else, if they were designed for that purpose. Runabouts would have a top speed of, say, 25 mph, and would be built to particularly high standards with respect to safety, fuel consumption, exhaust emissions and noise. They might well be electric or hybrid-electric vehicles. They would not necessarily be small, since some people might require a relatively large car or van for their local purposes, although in practice most of them probably would be. They would not be allowed on motorways.

  At present, one important deterrent to owning and using a runabout is likely to be that people would feel intimidated when driving one in traffic dominated by conventional vehicles. Lower and better enforced speed limits, in particular a properly enforced 20 mph limit in towns and on minor country roads, would go a long way towards removing that deterrent. Fiscal policy could be used to supplement the natural advantage in capital and running costs that runabouts would have over conventional cars. If long-distance travel by conventional car became slower, because of lower speed limits on motorways and other trunk roads, or more expensive, through the introduction of road pricing on motorways, that would encourage people to own a runabout rather than a conventional car and to rely on public transport for their longer distance travel. A deterrent to using public transport for long journeys at present is the difficulty of making the final leg of the journey from the station to the ultimate destination. Cheap car hire, making use of runabouts and available at every station, would often be a satisfactory solution. It is possible to envisage a not-too-distant future in which local runabouts would be the norm and only people with exceptional travel requirements would own cars of the present type.

  The local lorry would be best introduced in connection with a move towards area-based rather than firm- or product-based methods of distribution in towns. As the diagram illustrates, area-based distribution minimises the vehicle mileage required to perform any given task of distributing goods, which is in everyone's interests. The local lorry would have a low top speed and would be especially frugal in fuel, quiet and non-polluting—there is no conflict here between the operator's requirements and a safe and pleasant urban environment. There might be some conflict with respect to carrying capacity, but probably not much. It is only for long hauls, and perhaps even then only for large single loads, that very large lorries become economic for operators.

  Some manufacturers already prefer to use a local consolidated delivery service rather than handling their own distribution. Suitable changes in the legal and fiscal framework governing lorry operation would tip the balance in favour of those services for other shippers too. Two changes in particular are required. The first is to replace the annual vehicle excise duty for lorries by a distance-related tax, as already applies in some other countries. The second is to confine the largest and most intrusive lorries to a restricted network of motorways and selected "A" roads; there would have to be individual exemptions, most of which would be phased out over time. Shippers and operators would respond very quickly to these reforms.

  Abbreviated versions of this article have been published by RoadPeace and by the Environmental Transport Association.

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Prepared 27 April 2001