Lord Frost, negotiator of the disastrous 2019 Brexit withdrawal agreement, is now turning his dubious capacity for foresight to the future of the car.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph on July 29, headlined “We must never surrender our right to drive freely”, Frost argues that governments across Europe and the world “are doing everything short” of outright bans of private cars, which are “closer than you think”. Marinated in nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ of motoring, his article is tellingly illustrated by a parade of Morris Minors on London’s Mall.
Frost deploys a rehash of ‘back to the future’ Brexit-style arguments, all based on the myth that there has ever been an absolute right to drive. Bemoaning the move to electric vehicles, Frost complains that cars today “must be super safe, plodding ugly boxes” subject to “GPS linked speed limiters and road pricing”. He fears that one day “some feeble Red-Green mayor somewhere in Europe” will ban them entirely.
“Cars,” writes Frost “should be about freedom” and “that’s why they are associated with growing up”. But in a rare moment of insight, he notes that “many young people can’t drive and don’t want to”. And that’s because the car’s dominance is being challenged by growing demands for greater choice in affordable mobility.
Rather than ban cars, the trend today is to reverse the policy bias where automobiles have pole position in a road transport race in which pedestrians and cyclists have been stuck at the back of the grid. This change of priority is reflected in the recently revised Highway Code which has introduced a new hierarchy of responsibility that requires drivers of motor vehicles to look after more vulnerable road users. This change is part of a broader effort to improve road safety after a decade of stagnation in which over 33,000 people have been killed or seriously injured in road crashes.
Unsurprisingly, however, Frost has nothing to say about the negative impacts of motor vehicles. For him an absolute right to drive trumps other people’s right to safe streets or clean air.
Frost also implies that the early 20th-century transition from horse to the horseless carriage was a seamless matter of consumer preference. He ignores the historical fact that the car’s supremacy over our transport system was fraught with controversy over safety, pollution, and cost.
Automobile dominance came about only after decades of argument over speed limits, investment in tarmac roads to curb dust, how this should be paid for, and vehicles taxed. Today we face similar challenges to manage the necessary transition to a safer, cleaner and climate-friendly transport system.
The truth that Frost ignores is that use of the car has always been a conditional freedom. We have obligations to limit the risk of harm to others. That is why motorists have to license their vehicles, maintain and insure them, and respect road traffic rules. Car manufacturers have been similarly required to meet increasingly stringent environmental and safety standards. These – mostly European Union-based – regulations have ensured that cars are safer and cleaner than ever before.
Despite this progress there is still more to do, and that is why policies to reduce car dependency are gaining ground. Encouraging walking, cycling, and public transport not only increases freedom of choice, but will also improve public health, safety, air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
City mayors and local authorities are playing a leading role in these efforts to reclaim streets to serve all the community and not just motorists. Frost wants portray drivers as victims of faceless bureaucrats, but in fact we are all pedestrians some of the time with a shared community interest in safer streets.
It is telling that Frost – and his allies in the tabloid press – are so exercised by the possibility that speed limiters will be fitted to new cars. From July 6 across the EU all new car models have had to be fitted with intelligent speed assistance (ISA), a vehicle technology that helps drivers to avoid speeding. ISA will save lives, save fuel, and prevent traffic violations that most of us want to avoid.
But for Frost a device that can prevent speeding threatens our freedom. What is it with the Tories and their casual attitude to law breaking?
Sadly the UK – now outside the EU – is failing to apply life-saving systems like ISA and also autonomous emergency braking. Brexit risks becoming the new killer on our roads but it is also bad for the UK car industry. More than 50% of UK production is sold in the EU and will have to meet the new EU regulations anyway.
Meanwhile, the UK wants to lead the world in the development of so-called Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) of which ISA is a key component technology. But rather than anticipate the future, Frost and the Daily Telegraph romanticize the Morris Minor originally designed in 1948.
For those who see a future for the car and the UK industry, it would be well to be wary of self-styled petrolheads like Frost. After all, it was Lizz Truss’s favourite Brexit economist Professor Patrick Minford who in 2012 argued that post-Brexit the UK car industry should be run down.
What is telling about Lord Frost’s foray into transport policy is his use of the familiar tropes of Brexit ideology. Nostalgia, absolutism, blaming bureaucrats, victimhood, and contempt for rules, all appear in his claim for a mythological right to drive anywhere and anyhow we like.
Frost’s article ends with a wistful description of driving to the Alps. But his arguments are as secure as the coach at the end of the film classic the Italian Job. As the gang and gold bullion dangle over an Alpine precipice Michael Caine words aren’t exactly reassuring: “Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea…”.
Worryingly, Frost is now rumoured to be a possible chief of staff if Lizz Truss becomes prime minister. The thought that the man that failed to ‘get Brexit done’ might soon return to a powerful role in Downing Street would be comical if it wasn’t such a seriously unhinged idea. What could be worse than the UK being steered by a PM who civil servants are alleged to have called the “human hand grenade”, with an ideologue backseat driver like Frost directing her and us over the precipice?
David Ward is the Executive President of the Global New Car Assessment Programme and writing in a personal capacity.