The Department for Transport (DfT), taken aback by the level of public opposition to road pricing, is planning to offer drivers a choice: pay motoring taxes as they do now or switch to an in-car road pricing meter that could save them money.
A petition earlier this year against road pricing attracted 1.8 million signatures to the Downing Street website.
An online poll conducted among visitors and exhibitors to the Traffex transport trade show in Birmingham this week found 64% were against the concept of road pricing.
Ministers hope that encouraging volunteers to join a financially attractive scheme will help allay fears that drivers will be forced to install a black box in their cars.
Under the proposed scheme, drivers could be offered reduced fuel duty in return for paying a distance-based charge, which would vary according to congestion levels. DfT officials are paying close attention to a US trial in Oregon, in which drivers who agree to pay by the mile have duty deducted from fuel bills. The DfT plans to test its own scheme in regional trials to be announced this year. Manchester, Birmingham and Cambridge are being considered.
Drivers volunteering would be encouraged to see the black box as a useful tool, not an intrusive tracking device.
The box would act like a taxi meter, recording vehicle movements using satellite positioning. Drivers would be able to see the cost of the journey rising as they drive.
The voluntary approach is supported by the RAC Foundation, although it would like to see more benefits for those who decide to take part.
It has developed UK Drive Time, a concept that would see black boxes capable of giving advice to the driver about congestion and alternative routes.
Foundation director Edmund King said: ‘It would be political suicide to force road pricing on drivers. They need to be tempted to opt in.’