Many state governments are considering an odometer tax, also known as a “Vehicle-miles traveled” (VMT) tax, whereby motorists would be taxed based on the number of miles driven. [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12] Most likely disguised or justified as an effort to “save the earth” from global warming, this would be just another tax, as if there weren’t enough taxes already.
This new tax would be objectionable even if the money went to a worthwhile project, such as road and bridge repair. But unfortunately Uncle Sam—or the states with VMT—will probably spend the money on pork barrel projects, or give it to someone who is too lazy to work.
Life with the odometer tax would be less than carefree, and for some, no fun at all. It would be like taking a taxi wherever you go—you would pay by the mile to drive your own car! The odometer tax would add yet another layer of taxation to the gasoline tax, the annual license plate fee, the county road and bridge fee, the federal tax on tires, and the cost of your annual state inspection sticker—all of which you pay with the money from your paycheck, from which income taxes have already been extracted. We’re taxed enough already, don’t you think? Where have I heard that before?[16,17]
The VMT system would affect big-city apartment dwellers a lot less than the residents of rural areas west of the Mississippi and east of California. College students and residents of housing projects typically don’t own automobiles—they ride bicycles or take the bus. That’s why the VMT system is most likely to be adopted first in California or New York, like so many other bad ideas over the years, and then slowly spread to other states. It’s always the “blue state” governments that come up with more and more ways to raise taxes.
As I see it, there are only two practical ways to implement an odometer tax: By reading your car’s odometer, presumably when you get your annual state inspection, or by putting a GPS receiver and yet another “black box” in your car. Each method has its drawbacks.
Let’s look at the GPS technique first. Any GPS system that can tell how far you have driven would necessarily have to keep track of every place you’ve been. If that system also puts a time stamp on those destinations, it would also be able to keep track of how fast you drive.
Such a system could also keep track of the miles you drive on your ranch, in a parking lot, or on other private roads, and not charge a mileage fee in those cases, but the government would most likely claim that’s impossible (or too much trouble) and just tax you for every mile. Excursions into Canada and Mexico, or into a non-VMT state, would most likely be taxed as well. And what happens if you have your car shipped to Hawaii?
If you really want to have someone follow you around wherever you go, you can forfeit that segment of your privacy by purchasing a vehicle with OnStar[TM] built in, or by buying a cellphone with its own GPS receiver. Personally, I appreciate the semblance of individual liberty I now enjoy, and I’d like to be able to make a quick trip to the Dairy Queen without Big Brother making a note of it. Please note that ideas like this always expand, as new uses are found for them. And if your itinerary has been recorded on a “black box” computer in your car, you can rest assured that the information can and will be used against you if you’re ever arrested.
To rely so heavily upon the Global Positioning System, one must first believe (foolishly) that GPS signals cannot be jammed or spoofed, and that GPS receivers are always right. That is nonsense. I have a hand-held GPS device that I sometimes use to check the speedometer in my car. At the moment it says that my maximum speed (since it was last reset) was 443 mph. That was recorded in my 16-year-old Honda—a car that wouldn’t have gone that fast straight down, but at least I never had to explain the anomaly to a municipal court judge.
There are people who believe everything they read on a computer screen. When they are the ones assessing taxes, we’re all in trouble. If a GPS-based odometer says that I drove 9000 miles yesterday, the minimum-wage clerks at the courthouse aren’t likely to question it.
A taxation system based on GPS would be easily fooled because the signals from the GPS satellites are very weak, the GPS system is not resistant to jamming, and GPS does not work at all in tunnels or parking garages. Nor would it work if someone were to accidentally put aluminum foil all over the odometer’s GPS antenna, or remove the fuse where it gets its power. Naturally I would never want to be accused of offering advice about how to circumvent the law, but the VMT isn’t a law at this point. So whatever you do to the VMT odometer, be sure to do it in an underground parking garage. The satellite signal can’t go there anyway, and it will appear to the “black box” that your vehicle went in and never came out.
Now let’s examine the second method. If the odometer tax relies on your car’s existing odometer, how do you know the odometer is really that accurate? You’d pay less in taxes if you put oversize tires on your car or just disconnected your odometer for a few months at a time. I would never do that, but you might find it a temptation, depending on how steep the VMT tax turns out to be.
Is the odometer in your car really tamper-proof? The old mechanical odometers were, but in new cars, it’s all a matter of software. Has there ever been a computer that couldn’t be hacked, modified or disabled—especially when there’s money or principle at stake?
And aren’t odometers optional? The odometer is part of the speedometer, and here in Texas, speedometers are not required by law. A speedometer is very handy to have, and every car has one, but the state doesn’t care if it’s broken or inaccurate. “My speedometer is broken,” is therefore not a defense against a speeding ticket. When I was a kid, our family car’s speedometer indicated about twice the car’s actual speed, which was a real conversation-starter when guests rode with us, but the car still passed its annual state inspection. The VMT tax would necessitate a change in state law to require an odometer in every vehicle.
No matter how the odometer tax is implemented, the very idea is an outrage because it shows that our state and federal governments are constantly looking for new ways to satisfy their hunger for tax revenue. If the politicians would occupy their time looking for places to cut spending instead, the country would be a much better place.
The proposed odometer tax probably will not be put to a vote. (When did we vote for digital television?) It is just another bad idea produced by the people who believe that the proper role of government is to control, regulate, tax and pay for everything.
Politicians love to develop new means of taxation, especially if they involve computer technology. The older the politician, the more likely he is to perceive computers as infallible. The proposed odometer tax is just one more thing for the Tea Party people to get worked up about, and rightly so.
Andrew K. Dart is a broadcast engineer in Dallas, Texas, and is also the editor of akdart.com.
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