Road Tax Is Dead, Long Live Road Tax!
In 1926 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, introduced measures that would ultimately do away with Road Tax in 1937. His reasons for doing so included a concern that some motorists felt they enjoyed a special entitlement to behave on the road in any way that they pleased. They did, after all, pay for the roads themselves, or so they believed. Eighty years on and one of the charges frequently levelled against cyclists is that they do not pay 'Road Tax'. They don't, but then neither has anyone else this side of the Second World War. It's perfectly possible that there are some elderly motorists driving around who did once pay the tax, but they are fewer in number as each year passes. So why, for an alarming number of ill-informed people, has 'Road Tax' never really gone away, even though it may never have existed in their lifetime?
In part this could be because of the name of the duty that eventually superseded road tax: "Vehicle Excise Duty". Seven syllables that replaced the two of its predecessor are by comparison clumsy and unmemorable. Road Tax, then, has stuck.
So for almost eight decades cyclists have wearily pointed out that the little disc in the corner of motorists' windscreens did not pay for the building and upkeep of the nation's roads. VED simply goes in to a big pot: it is general and local taxation that pays for development and maintenance of the road insfrastructure. Rather than a kind of permission slip to use the roads, VED is a duty – set at a notional amount – to somehow offset the environmental damage such vehicles cause at the point of use. I italicise the last part of the previous sentence because, of course, hybrid and even electric vehicles have to use some sort of external source to power their motors, including 'dirty' ones derived from fossil fuels.
And yet it is interesting that whilst there would seem to be no shortage of motorists queuing up on TV, radio talk shows, newspaper comment sections and social media etc to berate cyclists for not paying a charge that doesn't exist, we seldom hear from irate drivers complaining about their fellow motorists and those vehicles that are completely exempt from paying any sort of duty.
But things are about to change and not just this weekend with a pricing structure that means owners of most classes of new vehicles will have to pay more for VED. Before he was pushed aside for 'Spreadsheet Phil' to take over at the Treasury, George Osborne sought to reinstate a more direct form of taxation of the motor vehicle. Osborne's idea was to ring-fence Vehicle Excise Duty so that the revenue raised could be spent only on the road network. This move apparently exasperated those within his department who traditionally resist limitations and lack of flexibility that comes with ring-fencing of budgets. Aside from being an inflexible model of funding there are two concerns that might stem from this new scheme.
The first is that this should give fresh ammunition to those who chastise cyclists for not paying their way. The income from this duty is to be restricted to the Strategic Roads Network – motorways and trunk roads – rather than the urban and quiet countryside roads that cyclists typically make use of. However, that subtle distinction between major road networks and those normally favoured by the utility and leisure cyclist is likely to be lost on the sort of person who tries to veil their own poor or impatient driving with an ignorant interpretation of the rights and concerns of more vulnerable road users.
A second worry is that if a direct link is seen to be made between payment of a 'road tax' – and that money being spent exclusively on roads – might this enrage all the more those motorists who object to cyclists being on "their" roads. Could this lead to greater opposition to cycle lanes being built? Cyclists, after all, don't pay a Cycle Path Tax do they? What of those cyclists that choose not to use a cycle lane that runs alongside or near to a road? Might this further antagonise those who want cyclists off their roads?
There are many reasons why cyclists avoid cycle lanes, preferring instead to use a road on which they are perfectly entitled to travel. Such reasons include poorly maintained surfaces; unswept glass and other debris; an unwillingness to skim past driveways and business entrances; oblivious pedestrians; dog walkers (including the dog owners, their dogs, their retractable leads and the deposits left behind by some irresponsible owners); having to give way at side streets when the cyclist would normally have right of way on the carriageway; the disconnected nature of some 'Cycle Facilities'; other cyclists.
In my time as a cyclist I have had a number of close scrapes, most notably a car door being opened in front of me – it was suggested that I was responsible for the resultant damage to the car; on three occasions I have been 'left hooked' by motorists overtaking me and turning in to my path; been passed close enough to snap back a nearside door mirror that struck my hip; and rebuked for choosing to avoid riding on a cycle path that I considered not fit for purpose.
The instances referred to above were the result of poor judgement, an inconsiderate attitude, and selfish disregard for the safety of others. I fear that the changes in road funding – albeit a very narrow aspect of it – will embolden the likes of those who cannot find it within themselves to offer patience and show consideration to other human beings, and that I will hear of more anger being turned towards cyclists for not paying road tax. I hope I am wrong.