Matters of Moment, February 1981

We’ve Won!

Because of the great and widespread disgust over Transport Secretary Norman Fowler’s proposal to alter the car-taxation system to embrace all vehicles, whether these were or were not in use on public roads, as expressed by Motor Sport, many Motor Clubs catering for the older vehicles, the NMM at Beaulieu, the HVCC, and other bodies and persons, but not to any extent by the National motoring organisations, this ridiculous scheme has been dropped. The Minister’s Departrnent issued the following statement last December:—

Norman Fowler, Minister of Transport, announced on December 19, 1980 that having carefully considered all the arguments put to him on tax on possession, he has decided not to go ahead with the proposed change. Answering a question from Dr Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead) Mr Fowler said:— “In July I published a consultation paper inviting comments on a proposal to change Vehicle Excise Duty from a tax on use to a tax on possession. The aim of the change was to reduce the high level of evasion. I am grateful for the very many responses I have received both from interested organisations and the public. The great majority deplored evasion but raised doubts about the principle of the change. It has never been any part of the Government’s intention unfairly to penalise the law abiding motorist. It was very clear from the public response that there were fears that our proposals would bear hard on a number of groups like the classic vehicle owners, the dealers, and those people who lay up their cars for the winter. The outcome of the consultation points firmly to improving enforcement of the present system, instead of replacing it by a tax on possession. I have decided therefore not to proceed with a as on possession but to seek ways of further strengthening our efforts to cut evasion.”

So the protest paid off, Democracy has triumphed, and it has been proved that the collective voice of car-owners is something to be heeded. Mr. Fowler has now introduced his new Transport Bill, which is expected to become Law by the summer. If he was extremely unpopular over the now-abandoned universal-car-tax proposal, we must commend him for introducing into this Transport Bill a means of getting rid of the existing unfair method whereby three endorsements on a driving licence in three years entail disqualification from driving. For this the oft-criticised Minister should receive due praise, even if the new “totting-up” proposal seems in some respects ill-compiled and difficult to understand.

Motor Sport has always objected to the present “totting-up” of motoring offences, whereby three not very serious offences, such as thrice slightly-exceeding a speed-limit or a triple-combination of simple non-criminal traffic transgressions, inevitably, result in loss of the driving licence, a little document essential to the livelihood of so many persons these days, and an essential “passport” to major enjoyment of a very large proportion of the population.The proposed new endorsement-by-points is quoted as follows:—

1 point: Refusing to submit to an eyesight test. Carrying a passenger on a motorcycle while still a Learner.

2 points: Driving while disqualified as under age. Contravention of an order prohibiting or restricting the use of a street-playground by vehicles. Driving without a licence. Failing to comply with conditions of a licence. Driving with uncorrected defective eyesight.

3 points: Exceeding a speed limit. Contravening the Construction & Use Regulations. Contravening special-roads or Motorways Traffic Regulations. Contravention of Pedestrian-Crossing Regulations. Failure to obey a sign by a school-crossing patrol. Failing to comply with traffic directions. Leaving a vehicle in a dangerous position.

4 Points: Failing to give particulars of, or to report, an accident.

5 points: Careless or inconsiderate driving. Using, or causing to be used, an uninsured motor vehicle.

6 points: Failing to stop after an accident. Driving while disqualified by a Court Order.

8 points: Taking or attempting to take a conveyance without consent, or lawful authority. Driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle so taken, or allowing oneself to be carried in such a vehicle. Going equipped for stealing with reference to a motor vehicle (in Scotland) or taking a motor vehicle without consent or lawful authority, or driving, or allowing oneself to be carried, in such a vehicle.

10 points: Reckless driving. Being in charge of a motor vehicle when unfit through drink or drugs. Being in charge of a motor vehicle when alcohol is above the prescribed limit. Failing (presumably under these circumstances) to provide a breath, blood, or urine sample.

It is good to note that when a driver loses his licence because he has “scored” 12 points or more in three years, such disqualification will be for six months only. Automatic disqualification would result from such cases as drunken driving, rnanslaughter, or being convicted twice within three years of reckless driving. This makes it difficult to understand why points are also “awarded” for these offences. And will six months’ disqualification be sufficient in these cases?

Broadly, however, one must praise Mr. Fowler for this fresh look at Motoring Legislation. With so many speed-limits of different values in existence, many of them too low for safe modern cars, we have never liked the severe penalty of loss of licence for three speed-limit offences within three years, the speeds perhaps exceeded under good driving conditions by only a few m.p.h. Now at least a driver has one more chance under this heading. Incidentally, when a disqualified licence is returned, it will be “clean” again, unlike the present overlapping endorsements blot. It has always been unfair that those who drive big annual mileages, such as lorry drivers, commercial travellers, and those in the Motor Trade, etc., who have a much greater chance of misusing roads subject to speed-limits, etc., should be penalised in exactly the same way as the “week-end” type of low-mileage driver. However, there is little the Courts can do to establish that such differentials exist, except that now the mileages covered by lorry drivers are in their log-books. So we must be grateful for the extra chances Mr. Fowler offers to offenders under the speed-limit and other headings. In the same way, there is an unsatisfactory element over what constitutes reckless or careless driving, inasmuch as non-motoring, perhaps elderly, Magistrates will not understand driving situations as we might ourselves, and a policeman who patrols on foot or by bicycle cannot be expected always to comprehend that modern cars can be driven quickly, and can make sudden manoeuvres, without being out of control or dangerous, anymore than bystander-witnesses are likely to be unmoved by squealing tyres and will make their own, often inaccurate, estimates of a vehicle’s speed. The proposed new Transport Bill does little to help in cases such as a reckless-driving charge, but there is a little more scope for what is thought to have been careless driving, which you can do twice, with two points to spare, before disqualification!

Where Mr. Fowler puzzles us is in putting criminal offences such as stealing vehicles in his Bill at all; surely these should be treated the same as would be stealing any other kind of property? Similarly, driving without insurance can have such calamitous and sad consequences that to be allowed to get away with this offence twice in three years, before disqualification, may also be questioned; and as uninsured bicycles or horse-drawn vehicles as well as motors can do damage, why are they excluded?

We have no use at all for those who drive when drunk, so are surprised at the ten points “scored” here and which the automatic disqualification clause renders difficult to understand. And if disqualification is to mean anything, how can the Bill permit this to be ignored twice in the points endorsement-period, after it has been imposed by a Court as a driving ban? It would seem that it requires a legal brain to understand the full intentions behind this Transport Bill. One notes that after, for instance, a young lad has been hauled before the Bench for driving while disqualified, he is apparently expected to be pemiitted to do this six more times before being again disqualified, and is to be allowed to endanger his pillion passenger while he is still a Learner motorcycle rider a dozen times! But it appears quite unreasonable to impose Endorsement points on the licence of someone who has allowed himself or herself to be carried in a stolen vehicle, unless intentionally, as this could happen to an innocent passenger (It happened to me. — W.B.) Then it is surely asking for trouble to offer one chance (and six points to go?) to those who fail to stop after an accident, as unless there are extenuating circumstances, this smacks of criminal intent, as does failing to give accident particulars or to report one; yet here you get two opportunities (and eight points to go) of acting thus before disqualification.

However, on the whole Mr. Fowler and his advisers seem to be on the right road, although his points-proposals will no doubt represent a major item for discussion, as well as a splendid party-game for the Motor Clubs for some time to come . . .

The Courts will still presumably have the right to decide whether or not to impose points, Fowler’s “black marks”. Otherwise, it might be a bit unfair to give only three chances before loss of licence for “failing to comply with traffic directions”, for example, because careful drivers do sometimes, for instance go into a one-way street the wrong way, or miss seeing a traffic sign, yet do this only four times in 36 months and you will be punished as unfit to drive! (In this context, I would already have won three of Mr. Fowler’s “black marks”, because when trying to avoid a long detour coming out of congested Bridgnorth on the last shopping Saturday before Christmas I made what I thought was a difficult but legitimate U-turn, only to be greeted with cross shouts of “No right-turn” and accompanying finger signals; I am still wondering whether I was criminally negligent or whether the barred-sign at this junction was obscured or is badly located — W.B.)

On the whole, though, let us give support to the Transport Minister for wanting to reduce the frequent unfairness of the existing “totting-up” licence Endorsement system. His Bill should put Tory Transport Policy back on course, after the damage done by his “Tax on vehicle possession” nonsense. Moreover, Mr. Fowler has refused to introduce random breath-tests, serious as drunken driving is, because he says he does not wish “to create ill-feeling between motorists and the Police”. He is the first Transport Minister, we think, to make this important point, at all events in recent times. While it is difficult to understand exactly why this ideal is important, in the existing climate of transport-strikes, the rising crime rate and widespread violence, vvith the grim possibility of riots in the future, the desirability of drivers and car-owners being willing to co-operate with those who uphold Law and Order must make sound commonsense.

While on this subject of improved motoring legislation let us hope that Norman Fowler will not savagely increase car licensing fees because he thinks he has been unfairly thwarted of revenue from car-owners in other ways. Note, too, that the compulsory Belt-up Bill has been rekindled from where it floundered when the Labour MP Neil Carmichael used it last year in his Private Members Bill. We are absolutely of the opinion that all who feel more secure by using their seat-harnesses should be encouraged to belt-up, but we are entirely against compulsion to do this. So we are gratified that this view is held also by the Conservative Member Sir Ronald Bell, by Lord Balfour of Inchyre, and also by a well-known author-QC, who expressed his dislike of compulsion on TV when bidding goodbye to 1980 in David Dirnbleby’s Panorama Programme.