Black Box in Cars: More Spying Programs by Federal and State Governments

With car gas mileage improving and people driving less due to high gas prices, the government is looking for a new way to raise taxes for road maintenance.  Their solution involves tracking cars using a small “black box” and taxing their drivers per mile driven.  Some states, such as Oregon, have already been testing such a system for a number of years.

Black_box_2_car_IMG_0003Advocates say that a new method of generating government revenue for road maintenance is necessary.  They say it is unfair that people who drive higher gas mileage vehicles don’t have to pay as much tax money for road maintenance, simply because their cars are more fuel efficient.  The irony, of course, is that the government subsidizes “green energy” to try to prompt more people to use these sources of energy.  Hybrid cars have become increasingly popular in recent years, and now their drivers are having some benefits of their use stripped away.

People also say the black box could help the government to change traffic flow.  By taxing some streets more and some less, they could persuade people to choose some routes over others, rather than individuals simply choosing the faster or shorter route (which would also use less fuel).  Indeed many cars are already made with black boxes to help police determine exactly what happened in traffic accidents.  Some are trying to make this mandatory.

The most obvious problem with the plan is the inevitable violations of privacy which will result.  Government databases would store exactly where individual citizens went, their day-to-day routines, when they did anything, and how fast they were going at any given moment.  Such data could be used for anything, from studies to purchase by private companies to use by law enforcement.  Such widespread tracking would do to everyday life what the NSA has done to internet and phone communication.

Though hybrid cars and electric cars would be charged the same as “gas guzzlers,” many of the people who use the roads and currently pay no taxes would continue to avoid payment.  Nationwide, the government is putting hundreds of millions of dollars into building bike paths – at a cost of $5,000-$50,000/mile – but bicycles would not be taxed for this use.  Advocates claim that this would even out the cost per driver and is therefore more fair, people requiring some of the most expensive work would continue to avoid paying the tax.

Some states have proposed variations on the plan to address these concerns.  Some have said there would be no GPS device in the black boxes, though at that point there is no reason the odometer can’t simply be checked at required emissions tests.  Some have proposed simply taxing tires.  Some have allowed an “opt out” solution in which people who refused to use the black box would be charged for the average miles driven in their state.  Some say that a simple raise in the gas tax – an 18.5 cent per gallon tax which hasn’t been raised in 20 years – would be a better solution.

House Republicans stopped a $90 million federal test of the per mileage concept passed by the Senate in 2011.  It’s not surprising that the majority of people who support such a plan are urban “progressives.”  With cities being more dense than rural areas, people who live there have to drive fewer miles to get where they’re going, but they have a much lower MPG driving there.  Many use public transportation, which is already riddled with privacy violations such as surveillance cameras and trackable passes connected to credit card data.

Some libertarians seem to be in favor of the proposal, however. Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation told the LA Times that it’s an acceptable action because “People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”

The Tea Party and ACLU, however aren’t as keen on the idea.  There are simply too many privacy violations involved, as well as this being yet another tax on American citizens who are already being crushed by new taxes, higher healthcare costs and a crippled economy.  Even when much of the 2009 stimulus went to infrastructure, much of that money was used on projects with no significant value.  There is no guarantee that higher taxes would lead to better roads.