Leading Article: Big Brother takes a benevolent hand

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SUGGESTION by the roads minister, Robert Key, that speeding cars be detected electronically, using the same technology as will be necessary for road pricing, is the thin end of a powerful wedge. The motoring organisations may pretend that Mr Key is suggesting that rich drivers may speed and poor ones must obey the law. But this is ingenuous. Any real change to a system of automatic detection by sensors would mean that rich and poor alike would have to obey the law, even when there were no police cars or cameras in sight.

In some ways, this is regrettable. Many of us enjoy driving fast, and feel there is nothing morally wrong in breaking the speed limit safely. The motorway is practically the last place on an exceedingly regulated island where respectable middle-class people can let their primitive instincts rip, and any society needs some such outlet. The Germans treasure their unrestricted autobahns in the teeth of all logic and environmental soundness.

Yet the arguments in favour of Mr Key's proposal are overwhelming. As a society we have long been prepared to compel motorcyclists to wear helmets, and they are endangering only themselves by riding bare-headed. A driver speeding in a ton of metal is endangering everyone around him, as well as his passengers. He is also damaging the environment. As an individual, he damages it hardly at all, but the only way to stop him damaging it as part of the great mass of speeding motorists is to stop him as an individual.

This is not to say that the restriction of speeding by any means possible is worth the expenditure of any amount of time and money. But the point of Mr Key's proposal is that it builds on technology already desirable for other purposes. Big Brother does not need special equipment: he just uses what comes to hand. It is clearly desirable to be able to charge motorists for the use they actually make of roads. If part of that use is illegal, then they should be punished for it. In the medium term we can look forward to a future in which car theft becomes more complicated than it is at present, since every car stolen will have to have its transmitter disabled in some way before being resold. Otherwise the satellites will know to within yards where it is.

This is all part of a wider revolution that is everywhere diminishing the space where privacy is attainable. Soon a citizen's whereabouts will be unknown only when he is at prayer with his personal communicator unplugged. In some ways, this reverts to the traditional state of humanity. It is only in modern cities that a man can be wholly lost, with no one to know or care where he is. And there are new, very considerable benefits. A world with less privacy is also a world with greater knowledge and, in some ways, greater intimacy. We may lose the freedom to speed, but by the same satellites we gain the knowledge that we share one Earth.