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'Motorists have always been a cash cow. For every €20 you spend on petrol, €14 goes to the exchequer'

Conor Faughnan will never forget his most embarrassing moment as an AA Roadwatch presenter.

He was sitting in a 2fm studio waiting to deliver his traffic report when DJ Barry Lang turned down the fader, allowing the listeners to hear him enthusiastically singing along to a Simple Minds song. As he ruefully acknowledges, "It ended my X Factor career before it had really begun."

For the most part, however, Faughnan's job is deadly serious stuff. As director of policy for the Automobile Association, he has become one of the country's most vocal advocates for the rights of Irish motorists.

Speaking to the Herald in his open-plan office at AA headquarters on South William Street, he warns that anti-car prejudice is on the rise -- a phenomenon that, as he sees it, has not been helped by recent policy blunders in Government Buildings and Dublin City Council.

"AA is unashamedly a lobby group, but we've never made a political donation and I've never seen the inside of a tent at the Galway Races," he says. "We are here to make sure the voice of Irish drivers is heard, because you hear so much rubbish being talked about cars these days.

"In the eyes of government, motorists have always been a cash cow. Whenever they want to raise indirect taxes, we are the easiest to catch and the first to be hit. If you put €20 of petrol into your car, then about €14 of that goes straight to the exchequer. Motorists don't object to paying tax if they see that it's being invested in buses or cycle lanes, but too often it just disappears into the black hole of general taxation.

Misery

"Our fundamental problem is that the authorities keep making drivers' lives a misery without providing a proper public transport alternative -- that's the biggest difference between Dublin and other European capitals.

"It's completely unfair to blame us for traffic jams when most of the people sitting in them would be only too happy to take a bus or a train if they were available. Car Free Day was a gimmick, a load of rubbish -- you might as well have a work-free day and shut down the economy."

Faughnan has been with the AA for 20 years, a little over half his life. He started out wanting to be a broadcast journalist, failed to get a job in Century Radio, and ended up reading traffic reports instead. AA Roadwatch was launched just as the economy was taking off and the number of cars on Irish roads was about to double, making it the perfect symbol of a new Ireland.

"There was a slightly fuddy-duddy reaction from some people, particularly over the way Lorraine Keane used to pronounce 'roundabout'. But the AA accent is a bit of a myth -- we've actually got more broadcasters from Mayo now than we have from Dublin."

Faughnan is not exactly a big fan of the carbon tax introduced in last December's Budget at the insistence of the Green Party. "If the advertising standards body examined it, they wouldn't even allow it to be called a carbon tax," he says. "It's got nothing to do with carbon, it's just another tax increase on petrol and diesel. This tax just hits motorists in the pocket yet again and achieves absolutely nothing for carbon reduction."

He is scathing about the flap over commercial motor tax, which raised the bizarre prospect of small business owners being prosecuted if they use their vans for a domestic purpose.

Fault

"I don't think it was John Gormley's fault," he says, "because it was somebody else in the Department of the Environment who sent out that memo," he says. "But the law is an ass and it needs to be changed. If Gormley really wants to prove his credentials, I'd say 'you're the minister -- change it',"

He has equally frank advice for Transport Minister Noel Dempsey on private clamping operators.

"Noel Dempsey should change the law. He should accept the new Bill proposed by Fine Gael, which is very similar to a submission we made.

"Private clamping urgently needs to be regulated. We haven't yet had the problems that are being experienced in the UK, where thugs are demanding money with menaces. But clamping firms here are operating in a complete legal vacuum."

On the controversial 30kph speed limit introduced in the city centre last January, Faughnan does not mince his words.

"I think it's crazy," he says. "It includes some streets where it's completely ridiculous, such as the area around Christchurch, where you're in three lanes of traffic and going downhill. In fact, it compels you to drive in a way that would make you fail your driving test -- and that's just plain silly."

Above all, Faughnan is critical of the growing number of road tolls which have become the Government's favourite way of raising revenue to pay for its infrastructural projects.

Burden

"In the first place, tolls are unfair because they're yet another financial burden on people who are already being taxed too much," he says. "But they're also an inherently inefficient way of collecting money.

"That barrier-free monster on the M50 generates €80m, a year, but it costs €20m to run the system. The carbon tax actually creates more revenue than every toll in the country combined."


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