Every Car Needs One: a GPS ‘naughty step’

Driving while distracted with cellphone

In December 2009, for CNBC European Business magazine, I was one of twelve writers to pen a prediction for ’50 Things That Will Change Your World in 2010′. I plumped for ‘personal CCTV’, including bike-cams and in-car ‘bad driving’ monitoring units.

Here’s what I wrote:

GEORGE ORWELL might have predicted our surveillance-obsessed Big Brother society but he didn’t foresee the rise of personal CCTV: citizens watching each other. Getting short shrift from a car rental clerk? Watch the smiles break out when you threaten to YouTube the grimaces direct from your mobile phone.

On the road, a more practical use for the mobile video camera is emerging: the post-crash eyewitness. To record SMIDSY (sorry mate, I didn’t see you) collisions, hands-free video cameras are being fitted to motorbikes and bicycles. China’s Muvi Micro DV Cam is just 55mm tall, has a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, and is only €100. The X170 helmet-cam from the UK’s Drift Innovations is twice the size and price but shoots 720 x 480 pixels and sports a tiny LCD screen for instant playback of roadside transgressions.

In automobiles, the technology has gone a step further, recording performance parameters before, during and after an accident. Around 120,000 cars in the US and South Africa are already fitted with a Total Event Data Recording system from DriveCam, which costs €1,500 a year and involves “driver coaching”. Around €1,100 cheaper, the Roadhawk camera fits behind the rearview mirror and, with its GPS chip, logs speed, position, direction and G-force. Crash reports can be generated with video embeds and mapped in Google Earth. Already widely fitted, ‘black box’ cameras could become compulsory for fleet operators as they improve driver behaviour, reduce insurance costs and, as careful motoring equals frugal motoring, save on fuel bills.

Bike cams are certainly proving useful although convictions after recordings of bad driving incidents remain thin on the ground. It’s possible (just a smidgen, anyway) that some motorists now think twice before accosting cyclists, especially after the BBC reported some cyclists are now sporting evidence gathering cameras.

But I believe the biggest jump in road safety will come when motorists have to have cameras fitted. The Roadhawk-style cameras mentioned above are now widely used in the US, fitted to commercial vehicles. Some parents also make their teen offspring drive with such cams.

Now, in the the UK, the Co-operative has launched a Young Driver insurance package, with reduced premiums for those new drivers who can prove they’re not as suicidal and crazy as their peers. To qualify, a young driver has to have a ‘Smartbox’ fitted in his or her car. This isn’t a camera but it measures safe driving techniques and transmits data to a monitoring station.

This ‘pay how you drive’ solution is for 17 to 25 year olds and was launched on March 16th. The Smartbox uses iPhone-style accelerometers and GPS chips to work out whether the driver is braking too suddenly, accelerating too aggressively, cornering at speed, and just plain speeding. Sadly, it can’t yet measure whether a teen is texting and driving so the tech is missing a key feature.

David Neave, Director of General Insurance at The Co-operative Insurance, said:

“The new ‘pay how you drive’ product will help make the UK’s roads safer by giving drivers a genuine insight into their driving behaviours…For the first time in UK Insurance history young drivers will be rewarded for safer driving and their driving assessed every 90 days based on the four driving behaviours. If responsible driving behaviours are demonstrated they will receive a Safer Driving Discount…However, if a policyholder consistently drives badly, for example repeatedly breaking speed limits or taking corners too sharply, then their insurance premium could increase by 15% of the initial policy price.”

The Smartbox allows customers to log into an online ‘Driving Dashboard’ to see how their driving has been rated against the four driving behaviours. It also gives advice on what they can do to improve. Each behaviour is illustrated by a speed dial and drivers will be rated on a green (good driving), amber (generally good but showing some bad behaviours) and red (bad driving).

Neave: “The Co-operative Insurance is committed to young drivers and improving the safety of the UK’s roads. We believe that by giving young drivers the opportunity to log into their individual Driving Dashboard to see how their driving is rated and to access safe driving tips will act as an educative tool and a deterrent against driving badly, which can only be a positive for road users and pedestrians across the UK.” [And cyclists].

The fitting of ‘good driving’ technology is welcome news. It would be great for similar tech to be fitted in all cars but at a bare minimum it should be fitted in every car where the motorist has committed any sort of driving offence. There’s no need to fret about curtailment of ‘freedom’ because if motorists didn’t speed, didn’t drive aggressively and didn’t do all the things they now hardly ever get chastised for, they wouldn’t trigger the Smartbox.

Tyneside, 1951: when a bicycle tunnel was built before a car tunnel

Cyclists' & pedestrians' Tyne Tunnel

I was interested in David Hembrow’s story about the Masstunnel in Rotterdam, “a magnificent and early example of elaborate separate infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians versus motorised traffic.”

This was built in the 1940s and, in its 1950s heyday, saw an amazing 40,000 cyclists use the tunnel each day. 4500 cyclists use it each day now, but there are more river crossing options these days.

The UK has similar infrastructure, just not as well used or as well-known. There’s the Greenwich tunnel in London (cyclists are supposed to wheel their bikes through), the less than salubrious Clyde tunnel in Glasgow, and, on my home-patch, the Tyne Tunnel.

Cyclists' & pedestrians' Tyne Tunnel

There are now two car tunnels, one built in 1967 and one opened just a few weeks ago. But the first tunnel under the Tyne wasn’t for cars at all, it was for cyclists and pedestrians.

The Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnel is nearly 60 years old and is a Grade II listed building.

The tunnel crosses the River Tyne between Howdon in North Tyneside and Jarrow in South Tyneside.

Cyclists and pedestrians are separated: with a tunnel section each.

The 270m tunnels run in parallel, one for pedestrian use with a 3.2m diameter, and a larger 3.7 m diameter tunnel for cyclists.

The four original wooden-step Waygood-Otis escalators were, at the time of construction, the longest single-rise escalators in the world, with a vertical rise of 25.9m and a length of 61m.

Cyclists' & pedestrians' Tyne Tunnel

Later this year, a £6 million refurbishment will replace two of the escalators with travelator-style escalators. The other escalators will be left in situ, with their workings opened to view.

In its heyday, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnel was used by 20,000 people a day, mostly workers from the shipyards on both sides of the Tyne. The shipyards are now largely gone, and so are the workers. Some cyclists still use the tunnel but, sadly, it’s an under-used resource despite having bike paths on each side of the river. There are now just 60 or so tunnel-users per day, with about 40 of these being cyclists.

This tunnel shows that the UK was once able to produce world-class separated cycle and pedestrian facilities.

And, gulp, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnel is not paid for by tax-payers as are other highways in the UK. The tunnel is paid for by the toll fees charged on the motor vehicle tunnels, making the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnel one of the very few cycle facilities to be paid for by motorists. [A point I make time and time again on one of my other sites, iPayRoadTax.com].

Cyclists' & pedestrians' Tyne Tunnel

Cyclists' & pedestrians' Tyne Tunnel

Oh, and the fish sculpture? It’s being ripped out and placed elsewhere. And what’s replacing the sculpture? Car parking spaces apparently. Criminal, really.

Definition of ‘car’, 1907: “an ingenious device for public slaughter”


In its Victorian heyday the satirical magazine Punch (1841-2002) poked fun at bicyclists and automobilists: both were guilty of “scorching” (speeding) and both ignored the prior road rights of pedestrians.

However, by the 1920s, ‘Motor Mania’ had seen to it that the Middle Class had become the Motoring Class, and Mr Punch – ie the writers and cartoonists on the magazine – had become “himself an enthusiast of the whirling wheel.” By the 1940s, cars had killed so many people, J. S. Dean wrote his famous pro-pedestrian tract, Murder Most Foul.

It made little difference. Road deaths had become acceptable to British society.

The rights of the motorist trumped all other rights. This ‘Motor Ascendancy’, before it became the norm, had been mocked by Punch. It’s fascinating to read volumes of Punch and see this transformation: from cars as killers and usurper of rights, motorists as “motor fiends”; to motorists as rightful “owners of the road”, immune to any charges of death on the streets.

I’m researching this history for my book on road rights, Asphalt: A Love story.

There are some illuminating cartoons and poems from the Victorian and Edwardian periods of Punch which show how the coming of the motorcar was feared. “Road hogs”, a term first ascribed to cyclists, was switched to describing motorists. A car, to the editor of Punch in 1907, was “an ingenious device for public slaughter”.

This is prescient. Today, if you want to kill with impunity, assassinate your target with a car and you’ll get little more than a slapped wrist. Only an idiot would choose to murder with a gun or a knife.


I am he: goggled and unashamed. Furred also am I, stop-watched and horse-powerful. Millions admit my sway—on both sides of the road. The Plutocrat has money: I have motors. The Democrat has the rates; so have I—two—one for use and one for County Courts. The Autocrat is dead, but I, I increase and multiply. I have taken his place.

I blow my horn and the people scatter. I stand still and everything trembles. I move and kill dogs. I skid and chickens die. I pass swiftly from place to place, and horses bolt in dust storms which cover the land. I make the dust storms. For I am Omnipotent; I make everything. I make dust, I make smell, I make noise. And I go forward, ever forward, and pass through or over almost everything. “Over or Through” is my motto.

The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come, they go on making roads—making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.

I am I and She is She – the rest get out of the way. Truly, the hand which rules the motor rocks the world.


What rushes through the crowded street
With whirring noise and throbbing beat,
Exhaling odours far from sweet?
The motor-car.

Whose wheels o’er greasy asphalte skim,
Exacting toll of life and limb,
(What is a corpse or so to him)?
The motorist’s.

Who flies before the oily gust
Wafted his way through whirling dust,
And hopes the beastly thing will bust?
The pedestrian.

Who thinks that it is scarcely fair
To have to pay for road repair
While sudden death lies lurking there?
The ratepayer.

Who as the car goes whizzing past
At such law-breaking stands aghast,
(For forty miles an hour is fast)?
The policeman.

Who hears the case with bland surprise,
And over human frailty sighs,
The while he reads between the lies?
The magistrate.