A Mileage-Based Tax Tells Me That Politicians Don’t Understand How Cars Work
A mileage tax effectively punishes poor people for getting around.
Last week a new unconsidered piece of political theatre popped up on our radar. In an 18-second clip that made rounds on Twitter, our new Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg proposed a mileage “use tax” on every vehicle to generate funds to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure and maybe pay for some public transit initiatives. Predictably, no one from any political affiliation seems to think this is a good idea. I mean, just look at the ratio, y’all.
A mileage tax effectively punishes poor people for getting around. Folks who can’t afford to live close to work, people in rural areas, gig economy workers, and basically anyone who doesn’t live in say, downtown Seattle, NYC, or San Francisco would get a raw end of that deal.
In a rare feat of bipartisan unity, basically everyone on any part of the political spectrum condemned the concept of a vehicle mileage tax.
True, poorer people in large cities like NYC often don’t have cars at all, as they have a (somewhat) robust public transit system that makes owning a vehicle unnecessary. The rest of the United States isn’t like that, though. In large parts of the country, city life is too expensive (or undesirable) so many have to commute. Poor people often work multiple jobs, driving great distances between work, school, family, and more.
The whole country west of St. Louis is pretty sparsely populated outside of major metropolitan areas. Even still, public transit in some of these actually startlingly large cities is quite threadbare. Why can’t we focus on fixing that, rather than punishing people who don’t have any other options but to drive? The proposed legislation doesn’t consider the plight of gig economy workers, either. A vehicle mile tax would only add more running costs on drivers who more often than not, are barely making minimum wage.
Even if this asinine piece of legislation were to come to fruition it would be hard to enforce, and of course those hit hardest by a tax like this would be most incentivized to find ways out of it.
So, let’s say mileages were calculated via an odometer certification either self-reported or via an inspection. Odometers are actually pretty dumb little devices. Your car has several speed sensors that determine and monitor how fast each wheel is going, but they also typically have a main “vehicle speed sensor” that acts as the main sensor that informs the speedometer how fast you’re going. In a lot of older cars (and I’d bet some modern cars too), your vehicle’s mileage is calculated via the gauge cluster, not the car’s computer. Meaning, your odometer is simply a mile counter, unaware if the vehicle is moving, never interacting with the rest of the car. If you tow the car with the drive wheels in the air, more often than not, the vehicle speed sensor will not be moving, and thus your odometer stays the same despite the distance traveled in the car not being the same.
If you wanted to defeat that theoretical inspection, all you’d have to do is unplug a vehicle speed sensor. Sure, that would disable the speedometer, probably cause a check engine light, and maybe disable other systems like cruise control, but we’ve driven without those before, right? Google Maps and Waze have pretty accurate speedometer functions, so that’s solved.
So what happens next? Do you outlaw speedometer tampering? Do you institute a national odometer inspection? Do you really think people would go for that? Can you imagine getting thrown in jail because your speedometer wasn’t functioning correctly? That’s insane, as plenty of people are rolling around on the road because they can’t afford to fix their speedometers. Jail because of a broken part that doesn’t affect safe operation of the vehicle is completely immoral.
Can we just get some buses or other functional public transportation, please? Enough with this nonsense.