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Comment; Speeding from fiction to fact

Last year NCE's 1 April spoof news story featured ENEMAS, purportedly a Transport Research Laboratory scheme to cut traffic pollution in urban areas by remotely limiting engine power. This would be achieved, the story claimed, through a network of roadside local authority-controlled transmitters akin to those used for the first generation of in-car navigation systems.

Lack of space prevented the fantasy being developed to cover the beneficial effects on road safety. Last week, however, it was claimed that vehicle speed limiters based on satellite navigation systems could save thousands of lives a year. Government-backed researchers say such limiters could be made mandatory within 10 years. Most objectors to the proposals raised civil liberty issues, fearing the technology could be developed to give 'Big Brother' control over individual drivers.

At first sight their concerns are premature, as the limiters are self- monitoring internal systems which cannot be controlled remotely. But 'Big Brother' technology either already exists or is on the horizon. A combination of 'tracker' chips, GPS, in-car computers and cctv cameras already make it possible for 'the authorities' to know not only where any particular vehicle is at any time but who is driving it. Police cars will soon use digital mobile phone technology to communicate directly to in-car computers and take over control of vehicles.

The 'liberty' to break speed limits, trespass into bus lanes or park on double yellow lines will disappear. Pressure from police, road safety organisations and environmental lobbyists will be too much for gov- ernments to resist, even if the 'control freaks' lurking at the heart of every administration were outvoted by libertarians.

Personally, and with one major proviso, I would welcome such innovations, in principle at least. I, like most drivers, am already happy to let computers modify my input to brakes and accelerator via anti-lock and traction control systems. Soon I expect to be behind the wheel of a car fitted with a radar which would automatically stop me driving dangerously close to the vehicle in front. I am also well aware that in a modern car it is very easy to inadvertently exceed the speed limit, and I have no real objection to my car knowing what the speed limit on any particular road is and refusing to go any faster.

Provided, that is, that the limit is realistic. Blanket speed limits are an anachronism. What is a safe speed past a school or a hospital or down the fast lane of a motorway depends on time of day, weather conditions, traffic density. Speed limiters, either internal or external, will only become accepted if the same technology that makes them possible is used to vary speed limits to suit the prevailing conditions.

Similar provisos apply to all the other technological possibilities. If drivers see real, positive benefits from such advances they will accept the notional loss of civil liberties involved. The technology is coming - the battle is to make sure everyone benefits from it.

Dave Parker is technical editor of NCE.

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