Taxing actual miles is better, but vehicle weight should be a factor for VMT

Because I’m in the 99th percentile for having strong opinions, a recent Washington Post article about some states experimenting with “vehicle-miles driven” (VMT) taxes in place of gasoline taxes got my attention. I’ve been complaining about the rampant up-ramping inadequacy of taxing only gas as a proxy for road usage for years.

Wear & tear is a cost of all cars, not just gas burners

Though they use less gasoline, it is obvious that hybrid and electric cars also cause wear and tear on roads, just like those powered by internal combustion engines do. Excluding those which weigh less than an average human being, every driver of any* vehicle on the asphalt should be paying a share of maintenance for streets, tunnels, and bridges.Pile of money

First let me point out that I think eliminating the gas tax entirely would be stupid. We should continue to tax fuel purchases for as long as they occur commercially because burning gas directly tracks with carbon dioxide emissions. Every breathing creature on the planet is affected by that pollution, not just the people driving automobiles. Taxing it is just!

I believe America’s leadership made a terrible mistake when it didn’t radically increase the fuel tax after 9/11. At that moment, patriotism might have mitigated the political hit. The true cost of every gallon of gasoline includes our spending on wars in the Middle East, defense against terrorism, and the ongoing environmental damage of carbon emissions and oil spills.

Gas is a dirty fuel in every sense of the word.USA flag - 1

With that being said, even 100% electric vehicles are not without deleterious effects upon our motorways. Never mind the generation of electricity—environmental issues there can be managed via different levers—but consider the physical reality of the cars themselves. A 2021 Toyota Camry rolls 3310 to 3475 lbs around our pavements depending upon trim level; a Camry Hybrid weighs in at an even heftier 3580 lbs.

That hybrid is eating some asphalt.

Space is occupied by hybrids as readily as by conventional cars

Add road congestion, parking issues, and traffic to the question of wear and tear. Engine type doesn’t affect those either.

To be clear, my position is that a combination of a fuel tax collected at the gas pump and VMT computed from individual vehicle data should start out with a total tax burden similar to today’s for a typical driver—specifically, those opting for efficient, mid-sized cars traveling an average number of miles.

I’m not advocating for a sudden huge jump in tax collection—though I believe most of us should be paying more than we do now to reflect the true cost of operating private vehicles—but for the choice of vehicle combined with actual miles driven to dictate the total tax burden per driver.

Allowing these rates to rise gradually over time would protect commuters from a sudden financial shock while allowing for desperately needed infrastructure improvements to begin across America. Escalating costs for operating outmoded, oversize vehicles in inappropriate environments would also nudge manufacturers and consumers toward more rational conveyances designed specifically for the types of trip actually being made day in and day out.

That Camry I mentioned occupies about 96.6 square feet (192.1″ x 72.4″ per Toyota’s specs) standing still. I’m pretty broad in the beam, yet my own standing square footage requirements are about 1.5′ × 1′ or 1.5 sq. ft.  math working out square footage of Toyota Camry

For reference: An average bicycle is 68″ long by roughly 24″ wide; therefore, a bike occupies about 11 ¹⁄3 sq. ft.

Here’s a quick visual comparison of the relative square footage occupied by a human body (lady) vs. an average bike vs. that same Toyota Camry. Remember to consider this graphic should be multiplied by the almost 8 billion human inhabitants of planet Earth to fully grasp the big picture.sketch on graph paper showing relative sizes of lady, bike, car

As a person with some physical disabilities, I’m hardly suggesting that all of us should walk or bike everywhere instead of using powered machines we’ve improved for that purpose over the course of millennia. Still, I’d argue that the ideal single person vehicle should be much closer to the size and weight of a bike if not the human body itself vs. a Heavy Duty pickup truck or even a sedan like that Camry on which I keep picking.

Even “compact” private vehicles operating with single passengers are a wildly inefficient use of space. That’s a more noticeable issue in dense cities, but the inappropriateness is blatant in any context given a modicum of though.two children stand next to blue hatchback

Again, as a person with physical limitations, I remain loathe to ban passenger cars outright from most spaces—even urban cores—but I absolutely support governmental policies that reflect the full, true costs of our dependence upon personal vehicles sized to hold entire families or a small sports team yet routinely carrying individual bodies.

A preposterous percentage of Americans—who carry multiple occupants on a given vehicular trip only 49% of the time, on average, per 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics—elects to drive something rather larger than a sedan.

According to Edmunds, in 2020, four of the top ten “Most Popular Cars in America” were full size trucks; three others were SUVs. That makes 70% of the favorite American choices for mostly carrying one human body even larger than the Camry I’ve been offering as an example of a standard passenger car.

According to this Bloomberg City Lab article, “Since 1990, U.S. pickup trucks have added almost 1,300 pounds on average. … the biggest vehicles on the market now weigh almost 7,000 pounds.” It would appear that human bodies in America aren’t the only ones experiencing an obesity epidemic.

The way that larger trucks have regulatory status as commercial machines, not passenger vehicles, making them exempt from EPA fuel economy reporting rules must be addressed. A solo commuter to an office should pay—literally, via her tax bill—for inefficient choices that affect others.

Those hauling heavy machinery or farm equipment may be reasonably held to a different standard of taxation. Differentiating between legitimate commercial vehicles and passenger use in calculating VMT strikes me as wise.

Major popular objections to VMT as implemented in 2021

Returning to the specifics of the states currently enacting—or testing— VMT in 2021, two major objections are noted (from the same Post article from paragraph one, bolded emphasis mine):

“Surveys of drivers involved in pilot programs revealed questions of privacy and data security as top concerns. Many environmentalists also are opposed, saying that taxing gasoline also[sic] is also an effective tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Under a miles-driven system, the highest-emission vehicles stand to gain a tax break.”

I see simple solutions to both of these non-problems with implementing a sensible VMT.

Environmental solution via VMT: factor in weight

To address the concern that fuel-guzzling trucks and SUVs will be under-taxed given their tendency to pollute, the miles driven tax rate ought to be multiplied by the weight of the vehicle.

Accounting for actual weight corrects for the environmental damage done by over-sized SUVs and pickups used frivolously in place of fuel efficient passenger cars for urban commuting. A Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is already required of all manufacturers. Use that information to tax drivers based upon their chosen vehicle multiplied by the number of miles s/he drives. That result offers a pretty reasonable assessment of how much wear and tear one individual puts on our public roads.

I believe the best policy in a free society is to allow the real price of operating even the most bloated conveyance to convince drivers to make better choices when conscience fails. I wouldn’t ban Hummers, but I’d like to see their owners pay for more of what they’re currently getting away with stealing from future generations.

Allow people to continue to “express their individuality” by driving one of the most popular “cars” i.e., full sized trucks if they wish, just make them pay their fair share of what they’re using.

Privacy objection to VMT: read the odometer, stupid

The privacy issue is hugely important to me, but carrying an intrusive GPS tracking device at all times is hardly the only option for implementing VMT.

You don’t need location data to assess miles driven. There’s an odometer built into every modern vehicle.

States like mine already require annual safety inspections of any vehicle operating on public roads. Adding an odometer reading to that process—done in state-certified facilities in every community—would add only a trivial amount of time and effort to that process. Remitting one’s “actual miles driven” tax after an annual safety or emissions inspection could be required before new window or license plate stickers were provided.

States could offer tracking devices like those used in Oregon’s program to those who prefer to pay smaller, more manageable, more frequent periodic bills, but also allow drivers to accrue billable mileage with collection due quarterly, annually, when registrations are renewed, or simply upon sale of the vehicle. That could lead to a large tax bill for someone making the latter election, but it effectively removes all privacy issues from the tax.

Odometer readings could be self-reported or taken at government facilities or in approved private garages such as car dealerships or service stations; any discrepancies could be caught upon sale or transfer of the vehicle. Deposits based upon averages—the individual’s historic mileage as these programs persist over the years or from data captured by auto insurance actuarial tables—could be held in escrow by the state if necessary.

In the longer term, odometers could be designed to transmit readings without coupling that information to GPS location data. Data transmission of this type is well within the bounds of current technology.

In short, there are no insurmountable technical or privacy obstacles to implementing a fair, cost-effective collection of VMT in 2021.

Bigger, heavier vehicles take up more than their fair share of space, they cause roads to deteriorate faster, and they represent a greater threat to the health and safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. A properly designed VMT should tax individuals for their choice of vehicle in combination with the quantity of miles driven. That would be by far the most fair and reasonable option I can imagine.

* Though this may not be a universal position, I believe that every human has the right to navigate the world under his or her own power without taxation. Bicycles and skateboards probably do exert a small toll upon the surfaces they transit, but I suspect their effects are negligible compared with that of most powered conveyances.

The electric bike pictured in the photo to the right of the construction trucks was used by my father to commute to his last full-time professional job before retirement. He was in his 60’s at the time and found the electric motor assist necessary to cope with a particularly steep hill between home and office. To be fair, he always had access to a car for days when the Oregon weather made cycling miserable or unsafe, but Dad makes a fair proxy for a non-young, not-above-average-in-fitness commuter.

Again, from the same Washington Post article, here’s a description of how Oregon is currently implementing its VMT program:

“Participants in the state have three ways to sign up — two privately run systems and one administered by the state Department of Transportation. The private companies send drivers a device that logs where and how much they drive or pull the data directly from vehicles. Then they send out bills and turn over the revenue to the state. Drivers get reimbursed for gas taxes they pay at the pump.

The companies keep drivers’ data for 30 days, and participants have options that include not sharing information about their locations.”

Road warrior or mobile mom: on-the-go hydration without burst bottles in a 4 season climate

Many of us practically live in our cars, or it often feels like we do. From long commutes to the carpool expectations of modern parenting, our vehicles have become as familiar as our homes.

To keep ourselves healthy and comfortable on the go requires some effort. We fundamentally ignore nature’s expectations for our bodies (frequent movement, limited sitting) in automobiles.

Stock your vehicle for health & safety

What steps can we take to make our vehicles safer and healthier for our families?

Keeping a blanket handy and storing a reflective vest, safety flares and a wide brimmed hat in the trunk could reduce the hazard of an automotive emergency or an unplanned, prolonged stop awaiting rescue.

Carrying my Beastie massage ball and a pair of generic fit-over sunglasses (I’m utterly dependent upon prescription lenses to see) in the glove box helps me avoid debilitating headaches that could take our show off the road.

Little things like stocking shelf-stable snacks and bottles of water keep my family from resorting to junk food drive thru fare. Once in a while might be fine, but daily is a recipe for poor health and an empty wallet.

Storing drinking water in your car

That said, how safe is it to store drinking water in a vehicle?

Sigg water bottles - 1The poorly insulated metal and glass body of even the nicest car will always exacerbate local climactic conditions. On a hot day, the inside of the car will be a deadly inferno; in frigid weather, a stopped car blocks the wind, but quickly releases its heat once the engine is off.

Extreme heat could affect water safety

Exactly what happens to drinking water stored in a plastic container in a hot car is scientifically unclear, but it is reasonable to be cautious where heat and plastic are concerned.

My usual bottle for use in the car is a 1.5 litre Sigg made of coated* aluminum. I fill it every Monday morning, drive around with it all week, and bring it in for a thorough wash over the weekend. I have a set of glass bottles, too, which I will use cautiously in the car, but not “on the run” because I’m clumsy.

At this stage in their lives—elementary/middle school age—I’m not comfortable giving my kids glass bottles to use outdoors. They aren’t careful enough, and I don’t want shards of glass to ruin a day out. I could switch over to glass for their use solely while seated in the car, but I’ve watched a lot of objects get kicked out the door by a boy in hurry, and I also ask them to carry their own gear out from and into the house each day. My calculus on this question still points to unbreakable metal bottles for growing kids.

The sheer magnitude of the denting on their Sigg bottles tells a cautionary tale!

I’m a little more comfortable leaving water in my car in a reusable container that isn’t made of low grade plastic like disposable bottled waters, but I always try to avoid extreme temperature variations of my drinking supply.

In the summer, I typically refrigerate my bottle overnight before bringing it to the car. I prefer room temperature water, but, if it starts out cold, it may not reach “hot” before I drink it.

Sometimes, I’ll fill one of our lunchbox Thermos jars with ice cubes before I leave the house for a full day of adventures; I can add one or two as necessary to cool off what we drink from our personal bottles. It’s rare for the melt water in the Thermos to be anything but cool, even late in the day.

Freezing cold has its risks, too

Metal or glass water bottles might alleviate concerns about heating plastics containing potable water, but there’s another serious risk in New England’s four season climate: freezing.

When water freezes, it expands. Ask anyone who has had the misfortune of burst pipes at home during a deep freeze.

At least one of my children has forgotten a full aluminum Sigg container in a car parked outdoors in winter, resulting in an exploded bottle. I discovered the bottle before it thawed, so it was the loss of a pricey (~$15 USD) object that hurt, not ruined carpet or upholstery.  The lesson was taken to heart.

At our old house, we parked outside. All water bottles were carried in from the car each night, and we brought new ones out with us the next morning. Most of this effort was to prevent freezing as opposed to spoilage or stinking since children don’t get any drinks in my car except for water.**

Now, I have the great privilege of parking in an attached garage, so what was a vital necessity is just an abundance of caution. The garage temperature doesn’t drop below freezing.

Even with my van being kept warm(ish) overnight, living in the Northeast means enduring at least occasional days where the air temperature doesn’t rise above the freezing point of water, but I don’t like being caught out and about without fresh, filtered water to drink.

Solution: an insulated wine tote

Here’s my solution: an insulated wine bag. Mine came in a gift. It was part of a matched set with a lunch bag and a file tote.

The wine bottle size is perfect for my large water bottle.

The interior layer of reflective insulation helps protect the water from temperature extremes. The decorative outer material feels like a lunch bag or heavy duty reusable grocery tote.

The top of the bag has Velcro to keep it closed when relying upon the insulation to do its job; I don’t even close it in mild weather. The whole thing folds flat when not in use. It wipes down for cleaning, but that’s rarely necessary since it’s used by an adult only for water.

Since implementing this storage solution, I’ve returned to my van to find a rime of ice in my drinking water, but never a catastrophic hard freeze that bursts my bottle. On hot days, I don’t encounter that gross mouthful of sun-warmed, plastic-tainted water.

You can see in my photos how the insulation solution also works to prevent the oversized and top-heavy bottle from toppling over out of shallow cup holders when I take corners a little too fastI hang the Sigg in its insulated bag on my passenger seat armrest instead.

Velcro-ed shut, this keeps the bottle protected from temperature shifts, but it remains easily freed, even one handed, while driving. I know where to reach, and don’t take my eyes off the road.

Unscrewing the cap while driving to get a drink is actually much more difficult than accessing the bottle itself. Since my daily reality also involves having a tea or coffee mug in the car, I’ll often use that for water, too.

Once my morning caffeine fortification is complete, I’ll rinse out the mug and pour in a few ounces of drinking water at a time. This, I do while safely parked; I take my responsibilities to others on the road as a driver quite seriously. The coffee mug gets carried in at the end of every day for washing, and it’s never filled to the top with plain water. If it were forgotten, it wouldn’t be full enough to burst if frozen solid.

By pouring water from my large bottle into a cup instead of drinking directly from the spout, I also feel better about using the same one all week long. I refill it as needed, at the doctor’s office, or the gym, or school—anywhere convenient with filtered drinking water. Our town, a mere seven miles from our old home, gets its water from a different reservoir, and the taste is less than pleasing to a girl who grew up on the fantastic water sourced from the Bull Run water shed.

Keeping my mouth off the large bottle also makes it more hygienic to share when one of the boys forgets his bottle or has already emptied the smaller ones they find easier to carry when we’re active. It isn’t out of the question for us to drink from the same bottle, but I do try to avoid swapping germs willy nilly when there’s a good alternative.

Amazon is selling a range of similar insulated totes from $8 to $50. If you’re carrying a water bottle in your car in a climate that regularly freezes or exceeds comfortable temperatures, this is a good solution for keeping your drinking water at your preferred temperature for both taste and good health.

To avoid buying something new, consider using an extra insulated lunch bag for the same purpose, though you would probably need two shorter bottles instead of one large one for that scenario.

Once again, my Thermos food jars are often pressed into service like this. In winter, I’ll fill the 16 oz jar with hot water from my electric kettle. Hours later, it won’t be hot enough to brew a decent cup of tea, but it can take the chill off cold water from a bottle left exposed.

If I’m packing water for the whole family on an especially hot or cold day, I’ll nest more sets of bottles into lunch sacks with ice or heat packs as needed. I might then tuck one or two, or more! lunch bags full of waters into an insulated shopping bag or a cooler to extend the time even further before outside conditions affect our drinks.

You can spend a fortune on the best cooler available, or you can increase the insulating power of items you already have by doubling or trebling them up.

My insulated wine tote gets tucked inside the larger cooler as necessary when winter brings its worst, and my water bottle doesn’t freeze solid and burst.

*I am left with questions about the potential risk of the “non-reactive” coating inside Sigg’s aluminum bottles, but I’m not enough concerned to dispose of a container whose other features I like that is still in perfect condition. I won’t re-purchase bottles by this brand because of how they handled the BPA controversy back in 2008.

**This is partly about health: we drink water because it’s the best choice for hydration. The other motivation is avoidance of sticky substances that will annoy me if they are spilled. If you aren’t old enough to clean my car thoroughly after you spill—or pay for detailing—you don’t get any option but water. Exceptions are made on long distance journeys when the family is in the car all day for many days in a row, but, at home, during a normal commute, water is absolutely sufficient.

Summer road trip planned? Schedule a check up for your car now!

It’s a great idea to have a professional give your vehicle a once over before a road trip, especially if you didn’t ace auto shop. According to my mechanic, I’m the rare customer who schedules a car appointment well in advance.

Welcome to Iowa signI was going to include a list of stuff to have them check. There’s a battery, and there are tires and fluids… Then I realized how much I rely upon having an excellent mechanic to keep my vehicle in good operating condition!

I’m planning to drive several thousand miles across multiple regions of the United States this summer, so I scheduled a check up for my van. I made an appointment for the week before our departure date. I did this when I had my snow tires taken off in April.

I asked the scheduler at the auto shop, “Is one week ahead of my trip okay? If you find a problem, will that give you enough time to fix it?”

He said yes, and I scheduled the appointment.

The mechanic also laughed and included this wisdom:

Most people come in the day before a trip. When I find something wrong, they beg me to fix it immediately. I don’t always have the parts or the time!”

Anecdotally, I believe the mechanic.

Yesterday, my husband came home from work and asked what time we’re headed out to visit friends today.

He said, “I’m going to be driving back and forth to that conference next week, and it’s pretty far away. I want to get an oil change in the morning and have them check whether anything is wrong with my car.”

He’s driving out of state to his conference tomorrow…

I had already written the first paragraph of this post.

Coincidence? You decide…

Cue Twilight Zone music