It seems as if anything can be done – truly anything – if it is in the name of safety.
From the pandemic to peanut butter, as long as a new rule, regulation, mandate, or dictate is couched in the language of improving safety it is either completely cosseted from criticism or its possibilities for gross governmental misuse are downplayed as the ravings of a paranoid lunatic.
The nation may very well soon learn that when it comes to “good intentions,” if the government is involved the true intentions are often hidden and they are very rarely good – https://thomas699.substack.com/p/the-cult-of-safety .
And it is on these intentions the imposition of a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax (“instead” of the current pay-at-the-pump gas tax) on drivers could be introduced at a federal level.
In the Biden infrastructure bill signed last year, a relatively obscure bit calls for all new cars built after 2026 to have a “kill switch.” Sold as a way to combat drunk driving, the system would involve various unclear-at-the-present technologies (yes your car will have to be able to literally watch you) to detect whether or not you could be impaired and if the car determines that to be that case then the car won’t start. See here: https://issuesinsights.com/2023/01/06/how-about-a-kill-switch-to-shut-down-washington/ .
Per usual, the proponents of the bill claim that no nefarious future actions are possible. From an AP story dispelling the myth of the “kill switch” (serious water carrying there) Robert Strassburger, president and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, said any information collected will “never leave the vehicle.”
In other words, it’s not really a “kill switch” and safe drivers really don’t have to worry ever and we’re doing this for your own good and anyone who thinks this device will ever be used in any other way by any government agency is nuts and bad and crazy and quite possibly is a domestic terrorist.
We’ve seen this movie before.
What proponents do not care to emphasize is the fact that the car must “passively” monitor the vehicle and driver and that the system will have at least one port of entry for someone (or something) outside the vehicle to access the system, a port of entry that will be perfect for the imposition of a VMT.
Briefly, a VMT is a direct tax on driving instead (theoretically, very theoretically) of the gas taxes currently paid at the pump. The imposition of a VMT has multiple potential permutations, from simply charging a flat rate per mile driven to modifying the rate depending upon when the car is driven (higher for rush hour, for example,) to charging more based on where the car is driven (known as cordon pricing) or even how much the driver earns in a year.
The potential fee system is so byzantine it could end up being like dealing with a combination of the IRS and DMV, so for a detailed breakdown of the possible implementation methods you should see here: https://californiaglobe.com/articles/a-primer-on-vehicle-miles-traveled-taxation-concepts/ .
To make the tax work – unless the government would rely on self-reporting which it won’t because, well, duh – a vehicle needs to be tracked at all times. This aspect has led to fierce public opposition to the concept, but if the tracker is already in the car for “safety” purposes some of this opposition may be tamped down (the same rationale goes for the eventual introduction of the self-driving car – which clearly need to be tracked at all times – lessening criticism of the concept.)
The VMT has been simmering in the hallways of state and federal bureaucrats for years, has been pilot programmed in multiple states like Utah and Oregon, and is already in place in multiple jurisdictions.
A VMT for large trucks took effect on January 1 in Connecticut, a driver is charged about $20 when they cross an imaginary line heading into central London, and, starting next year, most everyone driving below 60th Street in Manhattan will have to pay between $9 and $23 for the privilege to do so.
In Sweden, the fee to drive around downtown Stockholm varies and is measured in intervals, with the fee, for example, set at 15 krona (each krona equals about a dime) from 6:00 to 6:29 in the morning and 25 krona from 5 to 5:29 in the evening. For a more detailed look at the schedule (it’s in English but it’s so odd it wouldn’t really matter if it were in Swedish,) see here: https://www.transportstyrelsen.se/en/road/road-tolls/Congestion-taxes-in-Stockholm-and-Goteborg/congestion-tax-in-stockholm/hours-and-amounts-in-stockholm/ .
The inner-city fees are dubbed “congestion fees” by proponents, with at least some of the funds raised dedicated to improving mass transit; in actuality they are cordon/neighborhood taxes specifically meant to discourage drivers from, well, driving.
Last year, the San Diego (California) Association of Governments tried to put a VMT into its county transportation plan, but the governing board balked at the last minute due to the political ramifications (local elected officials have been booted out of office for supporting a VMT.) However, the introduction in California of at-this-point voluntary “digital license plates” could be used to track vehicles — https://calawyers.org/privacy-law/california-ab-984-digital-license-plates-gps-tracking-and-employee-privacy/ — and therefore could be used to take the VMT matter out of local hands.
Again, the rationale for the overwhelming opposition has been the invasion of privacy inherent in placing tracking devices in individual personal automobiles. With this new system, that issue is obviated by the fact that if you want to buy a new car you will have to have a “safety” system in the car, a system that can/will be used to impose the VMT.
For VMT proponents, another key advantage of this federal approach is that it essentially solves the other big problem involved in a VMT – borders. For example, if San Diego had a VMT, how would all the out-of-town tourists visiting Legoland pay if the tax at the pump is gone? What would happen if Missouri had a VMT but not Kansas – if you had to buy gas in the big Kansas City on the way to/from the other, would you end up being double taxed? The list goes on…
But a federal program that covers every driver in the nation eliminates this thorny issue as it makes borders meaningless.
And, frighteningly, that is one thing we know the Biden administration is very good at.
Thomas Buckley is the former mayor of Lake Elsinore, Cal. and a former newspaper reporter. He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at email@example.com. You can read more of his work at: https://thomas699.substack.com/