England : the epitome of a broken country. The topic of this week's post is to do with the wildly varying standards of what is and is not acceptable for drivers when it comes to that most basic task - filling up your vehicle with petrol.
With the price of petrol being so high now, it's inevitable that there are a lot of drive-offs - where people fill-up but don't go inside to pay. To combat this, petrol stations in the UK all now have numberplate readers that read the numberplate of each car as it stops to fill up. The numberplates are displayed on a big screen on the forecourt, in some cases, so you can see your vehicle has been identified. If you drive off without paying, the numberplate is given to the police and the case goes from there.
What they don't tell you is that your face is also being photographed for use by facial recognition systems and the PNC (police national computer). It's why, in a lot of places, the petrol station attendants won't activate a pump for a motorcyclist until they've taken their helmet off. That on it's own is a pretty big problem but it gets bigger when you understand something else; it criminalises motorcyclists simply because of the mode of transportation they've chosen. Don't believe me? If you're in a religious organisation that requires you to wear a burka or yashmak, or any other form of facial covering, you won't be asked to remove your facewear. So it's OK to discriminate against motorcyclists, but it's not OK to discriminate against religious groups for the same reason?
All this discrimination and assuming drivers are naturally guilty (because every numberplate is recorded and sent to the nationwide ANPR database and tracking system, even if you don't drive off without paying), could so easily be averted with the simplest of changes - pay at the pump.
Since moving to the US, I've come to realise what a stroke of genius this is. You don't have to go inside to pay. You don't have to hang around inside a foul-smelling 'convenience' store, in a queue of equally irritated people waiting for an untrained minimum-wage attendant to figure out what the buttons on the till mean. You can be in and out quickly, with minimum fuss and there's never any drive-offs, because the pumps will not dispense anything until a valid credit or debit card has been swiped through them.
For those who don't have cards, or don't want to use them in this way, the system still works because you go inside and pre-pay before they activate the pump - again - no drive-offs - although now you're back inside that hellhole of a store. It's so simple I'm at a loss to understand why the UK went with the over-engineered technology approach. It costs more, it's discriminatory and it's unnecessary. I suspect it's more to do with the desire to have cameras everywhere than it is to do with the prevention of fuel theft. After all, there's so many CCTVs in the UK (1 CCTV camera for every 14 people at the last count in 2009) that they're the most surveilled nation in the world.
The only real downside of pay at the pump is that the pumps, like ATMs, are outside all the time, meaning they're ripe for criminals to rig with card skimmers. But even the most basic awareness of this possibility is enough to thwart that. Don't ever use the debit option - always use the credit option, then you're not typing your PIN into the keypad. If anything, you might be typing a zip code in. If you do accidentally do debit, cover the keypad with your other hand while you type in your PIN. Basic precautions like this - the same ones you should be using at every cash machine - are so easy to do that it really ought to be of no concern to you whether you run your card through a petrol pump to get product.