Fleet News

Guest opinion: Devil’s in the data use on road user charging

THE recent announcement by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling that the Government is considering the introduction of road charging for ordinary motorists within 10 years has taken the nation by surprise.

However, it was greeted in the fleet sector with a sigh of resignation, with the predicted assault on the occupational driver coming perhaps sooner rather than later.

Why is this so?

Developments in Europe to try to control the activities of truck drivers and the famed White Van Man have led to the imminent introduction of digital tachographs, a supposedly tamper-free version of the current paper tachograph.

It did not take the Government long to realise that the compulsory fitting of digital tachographs would enable the device – based on black box technology –to also be used for tracking the vehicle by global positioning satellite (GPS).

This resulted in the announcement in 2004 that a lorry road user charging scheme would be introduced within five years. The cost of the system would be absorbed by a relaxation of both the vehicle excise licence and fuel duty.

What has subsequently become clear is that the start-up costs, not the whole scheme, will be wholly cost-neutral.

A truck using the roads at peak times will pay more per mile than one travelling off-peak. On balance, with our consumer demands on the logistics industry, we are likely to see more losers than winners with the cost to operators and the end user increasing.

I firmly believe the fleet driver will be the next Government revenue target. The recent announcement has done nothing to alter that view.

The majority of drivers using their vehicles in peak hours are doing so as a result of their employment. The arguments for attacking the fleet driver are compelling. They are an easily identifiable group, are a known cause of congestion and travel an enormous number of miles each year.

The introduction of fleet road user charging would be a relatively simple process. If the Government was to announce a charging scheme for fleet vehicles, in theory all vehicles could be fitted with a production line GPS system within five years from the date of the announcement.

Significant start-up cost reductions can be achieved by fitting the technology on the production line – a likely reduction from about £200 for a current retro-fit to £50 for a production line fit per vehicle.This would also create a secondary spin-off for private motorists who would be purchasing these vehicles second-hand with the technology on board.

But what are the concerns over the introduction of such technology? The primary issue is one of privacy.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has expressed concern over the way in which telematics data can be used to identify the whereabouts of the employee, particularly when not at work.

Such positional data has been used to discipline or dismiss employees who have not been where they should at a particular time.

It is clear that the definition of sensitive data under the Data Protection Act has often been given a wider interpretation than merely protecting individuals from the risk of data being used to support a prosecution.

This is a situation which is highly likely to arise in the case of a road user charging scheme where data such as location, speed and distance travelled are easily ascertained from the data stored.

There can be no doubt that road user charging is on its way, initially to trucks and then ultimately to fleet and private motorists.

Although the introduction of the technology is relatively straightforward, it is the outstanding moral and privacy issues which are going to have to be addressed sooner rather than later.

If we fail to get this right then any number of agencies will be laying claim to either ownership or access to the data collected for any number of purposes.

Only Government intervention will prevent a grey area developing and I hope that our rights are not ultimately sacrificed in favour of an easy income stream.

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