Sean O'Grady: A freeze in fuel duty will do little to ease motorists' pain

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The Independent Online

Like a driver trying to catch the tail of his car in a nasty skid, Britain's motorists should know that, when it comes to the cost of running their cars, things are likely to get alarmingly out of control before some sort of calm returns.

Yesterday, the price of a barrel of crude reached another record high of $143 dollars. There is talk of it reaching $250 per barrel next year. Even the most optimistic observers see it subsiding only to the $100 mark by next autumn. It is a mark of how changed times are that such a thought can be considered reassuring. The price of oil has risen tenfold since 1998, has quadrupled since 2004 and doubled in the past year. It's anyone's guess where it will go next.

What is certain is that the price of unleaded and diesel will follow it skywards. Not as steeply, though. The only good thing, perhaps, about having 60 per cent of the price of fuel accounted for by duty and tax is that it tends to dampen the effect of the rise in the cost of the original raw material. Still, we could easily see another 20p added to the cost of a litre of fuel over the next few months. At 140p, it would mean that petrol prices would be double the level of 2000 – the year of the infamous fuel protests. If ministers do decide to drop the 2p increase in duty, it will be nowhere near enough to counter what has been happening in the markets.

Medium term, there also seems little chance that drivers will be able to swerve around other obstacles that the authorities are planning. The Chancellor may drop his swingeing increases in vehicle excise duty for older cars, but the principle of higher car tax for larger vehicles is not going to go away. Neither, perhaps, is road pricing, the notion that attracted 1.8 million signatures to a protest petition on the No 10 website, but which is still talked about wistfully by the Treasury.

The London congestion charge will remain, slightly tweaked, under the new Mayor, Boris Johnson, and it is in local government where the worst head-on collisions with drivers will happen. Manchester would like a congestion charge, too. Nottingham wants to levy its citizens to park at work – a figure of £375 a year has been mentioned. Almost every council has ramped parking fines to absurdly punitive levels.

The good news? Technology. On performance, safety and fuel economy our cars have never been better, or cleaner. With the European Union mandating new CO2 emissions standards, that trend will accelerate. New technologies – electric, hydrogen fuel-cell, second- generation biofuels and hybrid – will also cut the cost of motoring – to drivers and the planet. Believe it or not, we may soon be able to leave fossil fuels behind, a plume of black smoke gradually receding in our rear-view mirrors.