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Pay-Per-Mile: The Latest Privacy Concern

It’s no secret that America’s highways have seen better days. In fact, the United States Highway Trust Fund has received four bailouts since 2009, yet the fund is nearly bankrupt, and the American highway system is beginning to crumble.

Lawmakers are scrambling for a solution, and many want to turn to a pay-per-mile tax. Currently, Americans pay just over $0.18 per gallon in gas tax, and that number hasn’t increased in 20 years. But as cars become more fuel efficient and Americans spend less at the gas pump, politicians are searching for a way to increase tax revenue and finance the Highway Trust Fund.

The pay-per-mile tax would require cars to carry a “black box” on the dashboard that tracks miles driven. Several states have already completed or will soon launch test programs, despite Congress’s failure to approve a $90 million test program last year. Oregon, for example, is testing the program on the vehicles of 5,000 volunteers.

Many see the proposal as the best way to tax transportation. Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation, stated, “This is not just a tax going into a black hole. People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”

But this “solution” also has many questioning its effectiveness – as well as its potential privacy concerns.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area said, “There is no need for radical surgery when all you need to do is take an aspirin. If we do this, hundreds of millions of drivers will be concerned about their privacy and a host of other things.” Instead, the commission believes Congress should increase the federal gas tax – including an additional tax on fuel efficient cars, like hybrids.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, the search is on for affordable technology that will track the miles without keeping track of the time or the car’s location. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada voiced the concerns of many on its website: “It would be fairly easy to turn these devices into full-fledged tracking devices… There is no need to build an enormous, unwieldy technological infrastructure that will inevitably be expanded to keep records of individuals‘ everyday comings and goings.”

And privacy concerns aren’t limited to Nevada residents. Mark Perry, of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote, “It would force us to surrender our privacy. Each day more and more of us are required to tell government agencies more and more about ourselves. Do we really want the government collecting data about driving habits?”

The Final Word

I’ll admit that the federal gas tax isn’t working. Fuel efficient vehicles go longer between fill-ups and reduce the amount drivers pay at the pump. Congress is scared to increase the gas tax because of already-high gas prices. And the gas tax hasn’t kept up with inflation over the past 20 years.

The pay-per-mile tax seems like it could resolve all of these issues. However, we can’t create one set of problems in order to fix another. We shouldn’t compromise our privacy in order to resolve a tax revenue problem. The government does need to fix the highway system and fund the Highway Trust Fund – but not at the expense of our right to privacy.

In pursuit of the Truth,

Johnnie-Ann Campbell