If you cycle regularly in the United Kingdom, then you will probably have experienced aggressive behaviour from other road users.
Many cyclists have been on the receiving end of such conduct, which varies from mild abuse, through to threats and acts of physical violence, such as deliberately ramming the rider with the vehicle.
A common thread which seems to run through these random acts is the perception that cyclists should not be on the roads, causing delays for other road users, as “they don’t pay road tax”.
Road Tax is not a new concept. It was first enshrined in law in the 1888 budget, in the form of “Locomotive Duty”, and was levied at five pounds per annum. In today’s prices, that equates to about four hundred and twenty pounds.
In 1909, David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the road system should be self-financing, and so from 1910, Monies raised from road taxes were to be ring-fenced, and dedicated to the development and upkeep of the roads – a process known as Hypothecation.
The Roads Act of 1920 required local councils to create a register of all new vehicles, and to issue them with unique number plates, and by 1921, the obligation for registered vehicles to display a tax disc, confirming that the Road Fund Tax had been paid.
However, subsequent chancellors began to raid the road fund income for other governmental purposes, and Winston Churchill formalised the loss of hypothecation in the Finance Act of 1936, and Road Tax officially “died” in 1937.
In defence of his actions, Winston Churchill was reported as saying “It will be only a step from this for them to claim in a few years the moral ownership of the roads their contributions have created”. (William Plowden, “The Motor Car and Politics 1896 – 1970) It seems to a great extent that his prediction has come true.
Finally, in 1955, the Road Fund, into which the government made payments from central taxation, was officially abolished. Since then general taxation has been financing the upkeep and building of roads and highways.
The Public has a long memory, and due to familiarity with the expression, there is a widespread belief that Road Tax still exists.
This gives rise to a widespread belief that roads are primarily paid for by the motoring public, and that this somehow confers a right of priority in usage of the road system.
That is akin to saying that as tobacco taxation funds a large percentage of the National Health Service, smokers should take priority on the NHS waiting lists, which is clearly arrant nonsense.
Vehicle taxation is on the use of a vehicle, not on the use of the road. Furthermore, vehicle taxation is based on the levels of emissions that are generated, and as such, vehicles fitted with larger less efficient engines pay a higher rate of Excise Duty.
It could be argued that this tax is designed to discourage the use of such vehicles, and this is amply supported by the fact that low emission vehicles pay very little VED, or in some cases, no VED at all.
There are other road users who do not pay VED. Vehicles operated by the Queen, and other members of the royal family, war pensioners, those who are registered disabled, government minister’s vehicles, and emergency vehicles, such as police cars, ambulances and fire appliances. In reality, these road users are subsidised by the income raised from others who do pay VED.
So, supposing that the vociferous motoring lobby get their way, and insist that cyclists “pay Road Tax” and carry a tax disc just like other road-using vehicles.
As a zero emission vehicle, bicycles would be exempt from any charge, but there would be a cost involved in issuing the disc. Under a Freedom of Information Act request, DVLA have stated that it costs £0.95 to buy a tax disc online, or £1.47 if purchased from a Post Office.
It is estimated that there are about 25 million owned bikes in the UK, and if every one were to be obliged to carry a tax disc, then at best this would cost almost £25M per year, and at worst thirty six and three quarter million pounds – to gain a net revenue of ZERO.
The costs of issuing these discs would have to be borne by the DVLA, and this financial shortfall would have to be recovered. The obvious way to achieve this is for the loss to be recovered by increasing Vehicle Excise Duty on other vehicles.
The same argument may be applied to the often-heard statement from car users, that bicycles should be required to carry a number plate, and be registered on a system for policing and enforcement.
A number of countries have experimented with registering bikes, and charge a nominal “peppercorn” amount. Some states in the US used to require cycles to be registered, which, to be fair, does offer a deterrent against casual theft, but was more expensive to administer that the advantages it offered.
Politicians have suggested that registering bikes, and obliging bicycles to be fitted with a number plate to enable “Red Light” violations to be caught on camera. Whilst this is an understandable statement, it is obvious that the makers of those statements have little understanding of the practicalities of such a scheme.
A cycle number plate that is of a sufficiently minimal size to be fitted to the limited bodywork of a bike must, by necessity be quite small. As such, would an enforcement camera have sufficient definition to make a clear image, and would the radar activation system register the very low signature of a bicycle?
Furthermore, cycles are slower, and assuming that the cyclist was over the white line when the lights changed to amber, and was entitled to cross the junction, would the following red light activation trip the camera, thus indicating that the cyclist had broken the law by “jumping” the red light?
Jumping lights at red is a sure-fire way that a cyclist may anger a motorist. Riding on the pavement also enrages both car drivers and pedestrians alike, and these two habits seem to trigger the “Pay Road Tax” response.
Minor traffic violations are not just within the province of cyclists. Many motor vehicles jump red lights – hence the need for enforcement cameras – they were certainly not put there for catching cyclists. Motor vehicles also park illegally on the pavement, (sometimes in cycle lanes and bus lanes), and casually breach speed limits on a habitual basis.
Pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders use the roads as a Right of Way. Mechanically propelled vehicles use the roads under licence. In order to use the highways under such a licence, the driver of a vehicle must be trained to a minimum level to ensure an acceptable level of competence.
This is partially because of the potentially lethal consequences of poor driving. Additionally, a driver must be judged to be both physically and mentally able to drive the vehicle safely, with due regard to other road users.
In a collision with a pedestrian, a one tonne vehicle travelling at thirty miles an hour is quite capable of killing that person instantly. A bicycle weighing in at 20kg, plus the weight of its rider colliding with a pedestrian is far less likely to kill.
Cyclists don’t hold up traffic. They are traffic, and have equal rights to use the road.
Even if cyclists were to contribute towards road upkeep on a sliding scale on a “user pays” basis, then the amount levied, would by necessity be small. Bicycles do not emit harmful emissions, they do not damage the road surface, they don’t leak dangerous fluids, and they don’t emit noise. On this basis, there is little point in attempting to collect what amounts to pitiful amounts of revenue.
A popular video clip posted on a well known media site highlights the ignorance and boorish behaviour adopted by drivers when in perceived conflicts with cyclists. The clip in question features an altercation in a car park between a cyclist and a car. The female passenger in a car remonstrates with a cyclist repeating the statement, “No Pay, No Say”.
Ironically, cyclists actually pay for infrastructure that they are not legally entitled to use such as the Motorways networks – out of their general taxation.
This sort of bigoted ignorance is rife in the motoring community, perpetuated by the blinkered views of the motor industry. Even Government Ministers don’t appear to have a clue about funding for the roads.
It’s surprising that even respected organisations such as the Royal Automobile Club can’t get it right. They refer on numerous occasions on their website to Road Tax, and even when they do use the correct terminology, (VED) they feel the need to qualify it by referring to it as road tax.
The AA doesn’t do much better either. A quick search on their website shows frequent references to “road tax”, further reinforcing the public’s belief that their annual payment to the government is a direct contribution for use of the road.
When challenged about using such an inaccurate and anachronistic term they responded thus
“The correct term is Vehicle Excise Duty, or Vehicle Tax, but we are conscious that a wide range of terms are used in online searches including “road tax”.
We use a range of terms on our advice pages to try to ensure that they work well in natural search whatever term the user chooses to put into e.g., Google.
Looking at Google search analytics for the past month, there were
823,000 searches using the term Road Tax
1,000,000, searches using the term Car Tax
Only 6,600 included Vehicle Excise Duty.
So, rather than attempting to educate the public, the AA chooses to condone and encourage the misconceptions!
So – how can a shift in perception be achieved?
For a start, vehicle manufacturers should immediately be required to only refer to VED in adverts, and motoring organisations should be removing all references to road tax in their publications and posted on their websites.
The department for transport should initiate an educational campaign to make the general public more aware of how the road infrastructure is funded.
The alternative is for cyclists to be charged a one off levy upon the purchase of a bicycle, and the cycle electronically registered to them.
Interestingly, after October 2014, motorists will not have to display a tax disc in the window of their cars to prove tax has been paid. The status of tax will be resident in a database hosted by the DVLA, and will be accessible by suitably authorised agencies such as Police, Parking Enforcement Agencies and Insurers.
Logically, it’s not much of a leap to see that cyclists could be charged without the need for tax discs, but this would obviate the advantages to the population in using cycles for transport and fitness.
Copyright June 2014