Is there any such thing as 'road tax'?

Car tax disc displayed in windscreen

Cyclists often report that aggressive motorists justify their behaviour on the basis that they alone pay "road tax". But there is no such thing.

A young driver who boasted on Twitter about hitting a cyclist appears in court on Friday. Her tweet enraged cyclists - not just because of its tone, but because she claimed right of way because #bloodycyclists "don't pay road tax".

The tweet went viral and she's being charged with driving carelessly and failing to report an accident. She said in a TV interview that she regrets the tweet and didn't drive badly.

Many a cycle commuter in the UK has confronted a dangerous driver, only to be told they have no right on the road because they don't pay "road tax".

But road tax was abolished in 1937 and replaced by Vehicle Excise Duty.

This is a tax on cars, not roads, and it goes straight into the general Treasury fund. Many government agencies have now started calling VED "car tax" but it might be classified as a pollution tax, since it's now based on the size of engine and emissions. Ultra-low emissions vehicles are exempted.

Start Quote

Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier - I have right of way he doesn't even pay road tax! #bloodycyclists ”

End Quote Emma Way's tweet

But "road tax" is a powerful political idea, implying that the tax should pay for roads not hospitals, and that drivers have more right to road space than pedestrians, horse-riders and cyclists.

A trawl through Youtube shows road tax invoked as a trump card in disputes between cyclists and drivers. In one a cyclist called Themitsky is hooted by a driver whose passenger then complains he is in the middle of a lane.

Passenger: "You don't cycle in the middle of the road… You cycle on the side, not in the middle."

Themitsky: "Do you want to try it?

Passenger: "But the car have (sic) priority over you because we pay road tax."

Themitsky: "No, no"

A tax on big engines

Four wheel drive in motion

Motorists with four-wheel drives may face increases in the tax they pay, reports the Daily Mail.

In another confrontation recorded by helmet-camera a cyclist accuses a driver of missing him by just a few inches. He is asked in return: "Do you pay road tax?" In another a cyclist is told he has no right to be on the road: "No pay, no say".

Motorists who've been cut up by aggressive cyclists or seen them jump red lights may have some sympathy with the idea that the roads would be better if those in cars had formal priority.

The "but I pay road tax" syndrome so annoyed cycle journalist Carlton Reid that he set up a website, ipayroadtax.com. Its purpose is to persuade official bodies to lead the way in banishing this durable phrase.

"It's dangerous if motorists think that because they pay car tax they have an entitlement to the road," he says. "A small minority of drivers seem to think it gives them the right to drive badly. Language is very powerful. If we can persuade all official bodies to use the term car tax then maybe in a generation or two Mondeo Man will have stopped calling it road tax."

Road tax, founded in 1909 to fund road-building, was already on the way out by 1926 when Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill is reported to have said in a memo:

"Entertainments may be taxed; public houses may be taxed… and the yield devoted to the general revenue. But motorists are to be privileged for all time to have the tax on motors devoted to roads? This is an outrage upon… common sense."

The Treasury got its way, of course, and the tax was folded into general funds.

Woman cycling in Cambridge

Reid has made considerable headway in persuading the authorities that allowing the phrase to die out like the tax itself will help persuade drivers that they derive no more benefit from what they pay to the chancellor than smokers, drinkers or any worker.

The RAC Foundation's director Stephen Glaister agrees. "Road tax implies you are being taxed to use the roads and the money goes back into the roads - that's not correct."

Money for old roads

Car and pothole

On 11 June 2013, trade journal, the Fleet Directory reported:

"Nearly four in five UK motorists feel money generated through road tax should be ring-fenced to maintaining and improving local roads."

The DVLA - rebuked for an advert calling for people to pay their road tax - now calls it vehicle tax. The Post Office calls it car tax. So does gov.uk, the government website formed to communicate simply. So does the Campaign for Clear English. And the AA.

The chancellor calls it VED in the budget - but the Treasury now uses car tax for talking to the public.

But what about the man or woman behind the wheel? I visited the UK's original motor city Coventry to ask what drivers call the disc on the windscreen.

Out of my straw poll of 20 motorists, 15 called it road tax, four car tax, and one called it "vehicle tax monthly". Most thought it was a tax to pay for potholes.

A recent report in the trade journal Fleet Directory suggested that drivers feel that more of their taxes should be channelled into the roads.

If the straw poll is accurate, then the critics may be right - road tax may have died before WWII but its ghost will take a lot longer to expire.

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Here is a selection of your comments

If VED is indeed a 'pollution tax' then why can you legally own a vehicle, declare it 'off road' run it around a track and not pay the duty? This is a tax for motorised vehicles to use the road network pure and simple!

Colin Morris, Calne, UK

Unique amount of pedantry here: Cyclists don't pay road tax either... However, car drivers do pay insurance in case they cause an accident. Cyclists do not. Motorists do have to have their vehicles registered for use on the road to provide attribution. Cyclists do not. Car drivers do have to have their vehicles prepared to a minimum safety standard. Cyclists do not. Motorists do have to be trained and assessed as qualified to use the roads. Cyclists do not.

Simon Evans, Southampton, UK

When I ride my bike, I leave two cars for which I pay vehicle duty at home on my drive, so please don't tell me I don't pay.

Roger, Torquay, Devon

It can be demonstrated that as individuals cyclists pay more tax overall than motorists do as individuals. (Using a bike does not allow you to avoid paying any taxes, including VED if you own a car as well. Cycling is more popular with high-earners than the less well paid and unwaged; and high-earners pay more tax in total.) However, this does not mean that cyclists have a greater claim to ownership of the roads (or anything else that their taxes pay for) than motorists. The fact is that regardless of what contribution you make to the exchequer you have a legal right to cycle on the roads but not to drive there. You may obtain permission to drive there, under licence, and some licences are free (for electric cars, for instance) and some are expensive. (For the most polluting vehicles.) It can easily be seen that driving a car that incurs the highest rate of VED because it pumps out vast quantities of filth into the air that we all breathe is not a valid reason to demand priority over vehicles that pump out less, or none.

Don Shipp, London

If the vast, vast majority of people who pay the tax think the money should be used for road repair - then surely, in a democratic sense that money should be used for that purpose.

Blake,

As both a cyclist and a motorist, the "No pay, no say" thing upsets me considerably. Does this mean because I drive a 1.1 litre hatchback, I pay less VED than someone who drives a 4x4, I have less say than them? That's rubbish! I agree that VED should be used to maintain the roads better but I do not at all agree that ANYONE (regardless of their mode of travel) has 'more rights than any one else' to them, its PUBLIC infrastructure!

Chris C, Bracknell, UK

Far too many cyclists don't know how to use the road properly. They're constantly skipping red lights, crossing zebra crossings when pedestrians are using them and pulling out of junctions and roundabouts in front of cars. And then there's the cyclists who cycle at night in dark clothes with no lights or reflectors on who then get annoyed when you nearly hit them despite the fact that its their fault they were nearly hit. Until cyclists have to take a test to ride on the road, get a registered bike and be required to have insurance then I won't have any sympathy for them.

Jonathan Turner, Northampton

A response to the 'I-pay-road-tax' argument would be to extend the tax to cyclists. But even if it was in reality a tax ring-fenced for road repairs, the damage to roads caused by cycle traffic is so minute, and the advantage to motorists of reducing the number of cars on the roads by encouraging cycling so great, that extending it to cyclists at a proportional rate would mean setting the rate so low that it would probably cost more to collect than the revenue generated.

Mr Henderson, Teddington, UK

Does the average motorist ever stop to consider the pollution they exhaust into the cyclists lungs, including carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, and hydrocarbons, including carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons? As a medic who cycles to work everyday I suffer (measurably) more from this than I do from any form of socially unacceptable passive smoking. And as far as RTAs are concerned, 112 cyclist deaths in 2013 (61 of which caused by cars) and thousands of serious injuries, and in almost all cases, the driver of the motor vehicle involved in the collision was unhurt. Maybe the VED should be raised to compensate the victims of the car culture?

Dan, Salisbury UK

VED should be re-named "pollution tax". If your mode of transport doesn't pollute (eg going by bicycle or on foot), you don't pay. Similarly, if your vehicle does pollute but only by what is considered a small amount, you don't pay. That would clear up any confusion as to the aim of the levy.

Martin Roberts, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Whatever you want to call it, the motorist pays a small fortune to use the road and the cyclist doesn't.

Stuart Barnes, Ipswich

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