Free or cheap, all cars are very costly to the society

Sunday March 27 2016

Every vehicle, whether it is a luxury limo or a dumped junk, uses roads to which society has given hundreds  of thousands of hectares of land, on which the economy has invested hundreds of billions of shillings in foundations and tarmac and road furniture, and which society must continue to pay billions of shillings per year to develop or just maintain. PHOTO | FILE

Every vehicle, whether it is a luxury limo or a dumped junk, uses roads to which society has given hundreds  of thousands of hectares of land, on which the economy has invested hundreds of billions of shillings in foundations and tarmac and road furniture, and which society must continue to pay billions of shillings per year to develop or just maintain. PHOTO | FILE 

By GAVIN BENNETT
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THERE IS NO such thing as a cheap car. If the vehicle you drive didn’t cost you much to buy and doesn’t cost you much to run, then someone else is paying your bills.

Every vehicle is a voracious consumer — not only of fuel and spares for its own sake, but of community resources which the whole economy is paying for.

Every vehicle, whether it is a luxury limo or a dumped junk, uses roads to which society has given hundreds  of thousands of hectares of land, on which the economy has invested hundreds of billions of shillings in foundations and tarmac and road furniture, and which society must continue to pay billions of shillings per year to develop or just maintain.

If you, as a car owner, are not paying your share of that, then who is? And why should those paying more than their fair share be subsidising you? Again, whether the car you drive is brand new or at death’s door, it is burning fossil fuels that the national economy’s foreign exchange is paying for, and it is pumping toxic gases into the atmosphere, which everybody in society must breathe. The car’s price makes no difference to that.

BOTTOM LINE

As you swing out of your garden gate onto the road, your car is taking up public space, it is creating noise, it is adding to traffic, it is increasing the length of queues, it is getting in other people’s way and contributing to the accident risks of other road users, it is part of the requirement for a traffic police force and other socially expensive administration. Whether it is new or used.

And these “costs” to society and the economy, in money and/or other terms, are being inflicted every time an engine is turned on and the wheels move. Any engine, any wheels.

In many respects, the level of that cost is equal per vehicle; in other respects it is affected by size, weight, mechanical efficiency and, perhaps above all, by the style and discipline of its operation. 

One factor that has virtually no effect on the vehicle’s cost to community resources is its price.  If anything, cheaper cars — by dint of age and/or poorer quality — tend to impose a higher cost on the economy and the society as a whole, because they are mechanically less efficient and less long-lasting.

They are often noisier, smokier, smellier, consume more fuel per kilometre of utility, and are axiomatically more prone to mechanical failure with more negative impact on  spares consumption, accident potential, depreciation rates and replacement frequencies.

The bottom line is that even if your rich aunt in Timbuctoo sends you a car as a gift, Kenya does not acquire a “free” vehicle. There is no such thing.

That car is going to impose the same penalty costs on this society and economy as a car costing millions of shillings.

In the same way, if you manage to secure an old car from another market at a much reduced price, the cost to Kenya of accommodating that car is not necessarily any lower.  

So why should its contribution to meeting national expenses through tax be any lower?