WITH the average car owner now spending more than £50 a week on motoring, the claim today that the government is looking at a new way of taxing them - this time as a device to lessen exhaust emissions - is likely to be greeted with weary resignation.

For while it is generally accepted that air pollution caused by traffic needs to be reduced for the sake of public health and the environment, even many motorists who agree with these aims must suspect that these ideals are now being exploited in order to make them even greater milch cows for the Treasury.

That is because the country's 30 million car drivers are paying £30 billion a year in motoring taxes, but are getting only a small fraction of it back in terms of spending on roads.

But it is the long-standing tolerance of this - as shown by the popularity of road travel which accounts for 94 per cent of all passenger journeys despite the financial penalties - that casts doubt on the notion that taxation may curb car use and, in turn, congestion and pollution.

This is compounded by the fact that the alternative of cheap and efficient public transport system does not exist.

What, for instance, has the acceleration of fuel tax at the rate of six per cent a year above the rate of inflation done to stop the growth in traffic, let alone reduce it? All it is doing is providing increased tax revenue.

This is a situation the government seems content to enjoy behind the front of its specious efforts to make the cost of motoring a consideration in deciding whether to use public transport instead.

Today the RAC motoring organisation claims that the Treasury have proposals for a graduated road tax that would vary according to the size of car.

Already dubbed a "tax on ownership" by the RAC, which says exhaust emissions would be tackled much more effectively if, instead, the government set vehicle manufacturers and fuel producers ambitious targets for their reduction, the scheme is likely to be flawed in principle as well as practice.

For if it did work - despite all the evidence that people carry on driving no matter how hard they are taxed - it would unfairly hit the less well-off motorists, to the possible content of the rich ones driving bigger cars with fewer of the hoi-polloi smaller ones getting in their way.

After decades of soaking drivers with "road" taxes that pay for all sorts of government expenditure, the state can hardly claim the system is based on honesty.

But if it starts adding discrimination as well, then motorists may start running out of resignation.

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.