The measure would see drivers help reduce emissions, cut congestion and increase fairness, Reform Scotland said.
But motoring organisations yesterday gave road pricing a thumbs down and warned that drivers “lack trust” in governments to operate such schemes.
Road charging has met significant public opposition in the past, with Edinburgh residents rejecting a congestion charge for the city centre in 2005.
But the Scottish Government is now being urged to launch a feasibility study on a scheme in which central government would “price” motorways and trunk roads and local authorities would “price” local roads. The scheme would require both road tax and fuel duty to be devolved to Holyrood for them to be abolished as the “pay as you drive” system becomes live.
Reform Scotland said this would mean that people pay depending on which roads they use and when they use them, better reflecting the emissions and congestion they cause.
Its report cites examples from other countries where similar schemes have been introduced, including Germany and Norway.
Reform Scotland’s director, Geoff Mawdsley, said: “The way we currently charge drivers is bad for the environment, promotes congestion and is unfair on low-mileage motorists and those in more remote areas.
“We believe that ‘pay as you drive’, with central and local government pricing roads and being accountable to their electorate for their level, would encourage motorists to change their behaviour.”
But AA head of roads policy Paul Watters said drivers would not back such a scheme.
“What’s been permeating everything that we do about road pricing is that people lack trust in governments in road pricing,” he said. “We’ve already got fuel duty, which is pay as you go, and road tax, which gets you on to the network.”
Pay as you drive could particularly hit Scottish drivers in rural areas who cannot vary times of travel to meet the cheaper “off-peak” rates after 10pm. “If you can’t do that you’re being priced off the road,” Mr Watters added.
Road pricing would also have considerable start-up costs and be expensive for companies and drivers who must set up individual accounts, the AA warns.
But Reform Scotland insists road tax, while addressing carbon emissions through its grading structure, punishes those who drive infrequently by charging them exactly the same as those who drive on a regular basis. It describes fuel duty as a “blunt instrument” which takes no account of which roads are being used, or at what time.
The Scottish Conservatives have already criticised the plans.
Transport spokesman Alex Johnstone said: “While there may be some benefit for rural drivers, that in turn would result in commuters who absolutely need to use motorways and trunk roads paying through the nose. These people already pay a significant amount.”
But Emilia Hanna, air pollution campaigner with Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Our current over-reliance on motoring causes air pollution, climate change, congestion and road crashes.
“It is clear motoring taxes currently do not reflect the true human cost of driving. Ultimately, the cost of motoring needs to increase, through motoring taxes or a pay as you go system.”
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “Ministers have no plans to introduce road charging now or any time in the future.”