Singapore is well versed in taxing the stuffing out of drivers. It has the world's highest motoring taxes. A humble Vauxhall Vectra, for instance, costs the equivalent of pounds 42,000 - three times the UK price. Most of that goes to the tax man. Now a new type of road tax - Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), the world's first widespread use of electronic tolls - has come into effect.
The system works simply, and tests show few glitches. Gantries, placed over major trunk roads, "read" cash cards displayed on top of the dashboard and automatically deduct credit. The cash cards can be bought from a variety of outlets, like the phone cards they resemble. The most popular value seems to be $S20 (about pounds 8). They are placed in ugly black boxes, about double the size of a cigarette packet, called In-vehicle Units (IUs), usually fitted just in front of the driver. Every time you pass under a gantry, the IU beeps momentarily, your card is automatically "read" and credit is deducted. The credit left on the card is briefly displayed on the IU. Charges vary according to the time of the day, from 80p to 40p. You pay more for rush-hour travel; but if you travel at quiet times, it's free.
At present, ERP works only on one major feeder road leading into the city; other trunk roads will follow in September. There will also be an extra charge for entering the town centre, likely to be 80p a go in peak time. A driver commuting to the city centre will thus soon be paying pounds 1.60 a day.
I asked an official what happens if a car, passing under an ERP gantry, fails to have a valid cash card. He seemed somewhat nonplussed by the question; why would anyone want to do that, I could sense him thinking. (Singaporeans are incredibly law-abiding, which is just as well when there are so many laws - including one forbidding you to chew gum.) Anyway, he then relaxed. He must have realised I was English, so it didn't seem such a dumb question. Automatic cameras photograph those cars without valid cash cards. Big Brother is watching.
One of the few glitches concerned a Mr Yuen Ngok Onn, who found that the IU in his elderly Morris Minor was not beeping as it passed under the gantries. It turned out that Mr Yuen's windscreen, typical of an old car's, was insufficiently raked to give the ERP gantry a decent peep as it looked down. This will not be a widespread problem, for there are few old cars left in Singapore. Apart from cherished classic cars, all are scrapped when they're 10 years old - an expensive if far more effective way of curing exhaust pollution than increasing fuel prices every March.
There's little doubt that other countries that find motorists a convenient source of revenue, such as Britain, and those serious about integrated transport policies, such as Germany and Sweden, will follow Singapore's lead on ERP. As usual, all our own policy-makers are doing is talking about it, and performing a few half-hearted experiments. ERP may form part of the forthcoming White Paper.
Used properly, of course, it could be a useful tool in helping to regulate traffic flow in Britain, and a powerful dissuader to those who needlessly clog arterial roads at peak hour. ERP funds, and millions more raised from drivers, could be ploughed into public transport and better roads. Used improperly, it will merely be another motoring tax. History suggests that in Britain the latter is far more likely. Here is a chance for Mr Brown and the transport department to prove, as Henry Ford might have said, that history can be bunk.