Joan Smith: Every 4x4 should come with an Asbo

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I've never met anyone who describes himself as a motorist, a noun that conjures up a chap with a moustache and leather driving gloves in an open-topped roadster. Yet this shy creature, who these days is more likely to be a Premiership footballer in a gas-guzzling SUV, seems to have ministers in a headlock. On Monday, the Royal Society declared that the Government's climate change policy is failing and that urgent action is needed in this session of Parliament if the UK's targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are to be met. So what did ministers do? They included a measure in the Queen's Speech, the very next day, to reduce penalties for speeding - rightly infuriating the Lib Dems, who accused the Government of sending out the message to drivers that modest speeding is acceptable.

I've never met anyone who describes himself as a motorist, a noun that conjures up a chap with a moustache and leather driving gloves in an open-topped roadster. Yet this shy creature, who these days is more likely to be a Premiership footballer in a gas-guzzling SUV, seems to have ministers in a headlock. On Monday, the Royal Society declared that the Government's climate change policy is failing and that urgent action is needed in this session of Parliament if the UK's targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are to be met. So what did ministers do? They included a measure in the Queen's Speech, the very next day, to reduce penalties for speeding - rightly infuriating the Lib Dems, who accused the Government of sending out the message to drivers that modest speeding is acceptable.

It's hard to think of another area in which ministers have failed so comprehensively. During Labour's first five years in power, measures aimed at reducing congestion were so ineffectual that car traffic levels actually rose each year. When it was revealed that an extra 5 billion car miles had been driven in 2000-2001, the Department of Transport lamely argued that reducing traffic was not a government target. "Reducing congestion is the target," a spokeswoman said, although ministers preferred to let someone else - the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone - bear the risk of introducing the country's first congestion charge. "Increased car use is consistent with a growing economy and we have to accept that people will want to use their cars," said the same spokeswoman, contradicting John Prescott's 1997 speech to the Royal Geographical Society, in which he announced: "I will have failed if in five years' time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car."

Those were the days. With this kind of dog's breakfast passing for transport policy, it's not surprising that the Government is unlikely to reach its promised 20 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010; the reduction will probably be in the region of 13 per cent, which is just above the UK's Kyoto commitment on greenhouse gases, although some experts argue even that figure is optimistic. The Government has a track record of taking fright at the least suggestion that it has upset drivers, abandoning even that modest environmental measure, the fuel escalator, in the autumn of 2000 after protesters blockaded oil depots around the UK. Predictably, car use and emissions went up.

Greenpeace last week stepped in where ministers fear to tread, highlighting Ford's aggressive marketing of environmentally disastrous 4x4 vehicles for use in cities by staging an invasion of the production line at the company's Range Rover factory in Solihull. Ford was cross and so was the Transport and General Workers' Union, which chided Greenpeace for hitting production "at a difficult time for the industry and the people of the West Midlands". (I sometimes think union leaders are so blinkered that they would argue in favour of hanging, if abolition threatened members of the National Union of Rope Operatives.) But it is perfectly possible to take the jobs issue seriously while also arguing that trade unions, along with other components of civil society, have a duty to think beyond the narrow interests of their members.

What I am suggesting is that transport is a moral issue, causing thousands of avoidable deaths each year from pollution and accidents. Green issues barely featured in the general election but since then the Government has put anti-social behaviour at the heart of its third term: what could be more anti-social than the behaviour of drivers who do not show a trace of responsibility, acquiring SUVs and other high-performance cars as status symbols and ignoring their effects on the environment? I would like to see a form of fuel rationing by price, with the cost of petrol rising exponentially for drivers who use more than a set quantity per year. I'm not going as far as saying urban owners of 4x4s should automatically be served with an Asbo - but it's a nice thought.

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