The Government's most senior adviser on transport hit out at the owners of urban four-wheel-drive vehicles yesterday, branding them irresponsible and dangerous.
Professor David Begg suggested that their drivers should pay higher car tax and congestion charges. "If people want to cause damage to the environment, create congestion and continue to threaten the safety of other road users by driving these vehicles around then they should be made to pay for it," the chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport said.
Falling prices and cheap finance deals have led to a record number of 4x4s being sold in Britain, with more than 77,000 bought in the first five months of this year, compared with 67,000 in the same period in 2003.
Opposition to the bulky vehicles, which can weigh up to two tonnes, has grown in tandem with the boom, as environmentalists and road safety campaigners voice their opposition. Only last month the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, branded parents using these "status symbols" for school trips as complete idiots.
Late last year the first study of its type showed that four-wheel-drive cars were three times more likely to kill a pedestrian than smaller vehicles. Researchers found that their height led to fatal head injuries, whereas saloon cars usually caused leg wounds. Motorists involved in side-impact collisions with 4x4s are 27 times more likely to die than those struck by other cars.
Mr Begg said: "Whilst driving off-road in the countryside might be suitable for 4x4 vehicles, there is no doubt that the same cannot be said for driving through our towns and cities. They're polluters, they're space-occupiers, and they're more dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists."
The vehicles emitted four times as much carbon dioxide as more environmentally friendly cars, he said. "Owners should pay a higher rate of car tax to reflect the damage they cause. In conditions like London's congestion charging zones, 4x4 drivers should also pay more."
Mr Begg is not alone in that view. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, has led a campaign against the spread of off-road vehicles. His report, A Programme for Change, recommends higher excise duty on such vehicles.
From next year French purchasers of 4x4s face a higher purchase tax and Parisian councillors have proposed banning them from the capital.
A spokesman for the Treasury said that it kept taxes under review, but an increase seems unlikely. Only two years ago the Government rejected the idea of "punitive" rates, choosing instead to offer "incentive" decreases for smaller cars.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said 4x4 drivers should not be vilified. The risks had been exaggerated, while drivers liked the high driving position, visibility and perceived safety.