Print

Since when has our freedom been so readily sacrificed?

There is good news at last for the beleaguered motorist. The spying speed-camera may soon become redundant. There will be no need for that panicky, often dangerous application of brakes as one flashes past a speed limit sign. Soon it will be our cars which have a conscience; they will brake automatically as the speed limit changes.

For control freaks everywhere, the new Intelligent Speed Adaptation system will sound like a wonderful idea. Part of a car’s computer system, it will have access to a database containing every road’s permitted speed.

Independent-minded drivers will be able to switch it to advisory mode, which will offer the traditional smiley face on the car’s computer screen while all is well. Should the speed limit be exceeded, the smile will turn to a frown. If it is still ignored, the face will turn red and emit an angry beeping sound. Alternatively, drivers can opt for the over-ride system, handing over control entirely to the car’s computer.

Here is a small but perfectly formed example of the way modern technology seduces us into giving up one freedom after another. The case for self-controlling cars seems unanswerable. Transport for London, a public body, has invested in the technology and is now pressing ahead with a pilot scheme.

With the enthusiasm of a sales director, its road safety manager has welcomed innovative technology which will save lives. There will be a report on the pilot scheme. It will find that, yes, almost certainly self-controlling cars cause fewer accidents. At some point, a brave politician will say that saving human life is too important to be left to choice. The system should be compulsory.

It is not the noblest of civil liberties, the freedom to drive one’s own car, and indeed may not matter that much, but the arguments used for greater regulation in this case are becoming worryingly familiar. They were much to the fore during the debate surrounding the period of detention without trial. They are behind recent police proposals to retain the DNA of innocent people for 12 years.

The case is simple: in the modern world, freedom often involves inappropriate and unnecessary risk. If you are a good, law-abiding citizen, you will be safer if society is more carefully controlled. So, in this minor matter of self-driving cars, the argument will be that anything which saves lives is worthwhile. The greatest freedom, it will be said, is the freedom of a little kiddie to grow to adulthood without being crushed by a speeding, uncontrolled car.

The same line has been used in more important discussions, an appeal to our new fearfulness becoming a feature of debates surrounding matters of individual freedom. When the question of civil liberties in a post-9//11 world was being discussed, government ministers would repeatedly argue that the most important human right was for a citizen was to be protected from harm.

“Freedom from terror is our greatest civil liberty,” as Tony Blair put it. This highly questionable rationale – is freedom from terror really more important than freedom of speech, freedom from wrongful arrest, freedom to vote? – is often accompanied by a innocent-sounding sound-bite. “If you have done nothing wrong,” champions of control will say, “then you will have nothing to fear.”

Because most of us like to think we are respectable people, this line plays well. When, on last week’s Question Time on BBC1 there was a discussion about how long the police should retain details of the DNA of those who have never been charged with an offence, a member of the audience argued that every citizen’s genetic code should be on a central database – after all, if they did nothing wrong, they would have no problem. He was loudly applauded.

The law-abiding majority are surprisingly relaxed when it comes to matters of individual freedom. A reduction in choice makes them feel safer. Driving through life, regulated by the smiley but stern face of authority, they find that questions of personal choice and morality are considerably less complicated.