Let’s play Bicycle Bingo. Open any story on regit.cars that features cycling (Bicycle Bingo also works on national and local newspapers) and scroll down into the comments section. Within seconds you’ll happen upon scores of comments that are trotted out so often they’ve been marked on a handy bingo card. And it’s not just forum habitués who can be predicted so accurately – newspaper and magazine columnists also rely on the same arguments. You win Bicycle Bingo by marking comments which feature at least five of the predictable arguments. I’ve already covered some of them in previous articles, including “cyclists always ride in the middle of the road” and “cyclists always blow through red lights”, but there are another two which always score highly, and if you’ve got them on your bingo card you’re almost guaranteed to win. These are “cyclists don’t pay road tax so have no rights to ride on the road” and “cyclists don’t have insurance.” (The insurance one is easy to answer – most household insurance policies cover occupants for third-party claims and any cyclists who are members of clubs are covered by club insurance policies). Here’s a comment from motoring.co.uk forum member Paul Stevens which would have had you shouting “house!” almost as soon as you’d started playing:
“Cyclists do not pay road tax nor do the vast majority have any form of 3rd party insurance, nor any form of proper riding qualification (yet can ride at over 40mph!), thus they have no rights on the public road. I get so annoyed by the cyclist self opinionated view that they are always in the right and all other road users are wrong. Now lorry designs are having to be changed because idiot cyclists who think they can ignore red lights, use pavements, ignore the rules of the road and put themselves in the wrong places through ignorance are getting injured. You don't pay tax, you don't have insurance, you don't have a riding licence, you don't have any rights on the road. Get out of the way!"
Before I get into the facts and some historical background is it not strange that Mr. Stevens believes highway rights and legal protections should be based on how much a road user pays? Using that analogy, drivers of Band L motor vehicles would have more say on the roads of Britain than those driving Band B vehicles. In other words, BMW drivers could force “lesser” motorists to make way for them because they pay more vehicle excise duty. (And, no, I won’t slot in the obvious joke there, many of my best friends are BMW drivers).
Winston Churchill started the process of abolishing “road tax” in the 1920s in the first of his infamous “raids on the road fund.” The Road Fund had been set up in the 1909/10 Finance Act, part of Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’. No new roads were ever built using the Road Fund. Much the largest part of its grants (over 90 percent in all) went towards small scale improvements in road surfaces. The Road Fund – aka “road tax” – was abolished in 1937, and motorists ceased paying directly for road improvements. Or, as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) puts it: “There has been no direct relationship between vehicle tax and road expenditure since 1937.”
So, if motorists don’t pay for roads, who does? We all do! Roads are paid for by local and general taxation – that is, council tax and income tax. And anybody who buys anything in Britain also helps to pay for roads because VAT contributes to the national coffers. Businesses which pay business rates also contribute into the national coffers. And that’s where the money for roads comes from: the consolidated fund, the treasury’s pot of cash that pays for everything. The only taxation in the UK that’s ring-fenced, i.e, raised by one set of users and ostensibly spent on that set of users is the TV licence fee. “Road tax” should be more accurately described as “car tax” as it’s a tax on tailpipe CO2 emissions. It’s not now, and never has been, a fee to use roads. If car tax was a fee to use roads, electric cars and low-emissions cars wouldn’t be able to drive on UK roads. Motoring taxes go into the consolidated fund, they don’t pay for roads directly. If taxes did pay directly for amenities, drinkers could say their booze taxes should pay for bigger pubs, or childless people could opt out of paying for schools which they clearly won’t ever use.
We live in an “information age” but despite the ease of finding out what actually pays for roads far too many people rely on hearsay. Bicycle Bingo isn’t just an indoor thing. It can also be played on the roads, especially in warmer weather when car windows are open. Here’s the transcript from a helmetcam conversation that took place in 2013 in Brixton. YouTube user “themitsky” could have shouted “house!” at any time but, instead, chose to politely stand his ground when the passenger and driver of a Vauxhall Astra decided to use the “road tax” ploy when arguing that themistky ought to get out of the way of motorists because he was riding a bicycle:
Passenger: "…the car have priority over you because we pay road tax." themitsky: "…there is no such thing as road tax." Passenger: "What do you mean there’s no such thing as road tax? [indicating car tax on windshield] This is road tax." themitsky: "That’s not road tax." Passenger: "What is it?" themitsky: "It’s a Vehicle Excise Duty disc. It’s based on how much your emissions are on the car." Passenger: [silence] themitsky: If you have less emissions on your car it’s cheaper or it’s free." Passenger: " Is it really?" themitsky: "Yes." Passenger: "Is that what you say?" themitsky: "Yes." Passenger: "So your one is free cos it’s a bicycle?" themitsky: "Yeah … You’ve got environmental cars which are cheaper because the emissions are lower." Passenger: "So why don’t you buy a car then?" themitsky: "I’ve got a car at home, I don’t need to use it now ‘cos I’m on my bike."
Now, that conversation would be hilarious if it wasn't so serious. The driver was later issued a warning by the Metropolitan Police. A Met Roadsafe officer told themitsky: “Very well done. Nice calm conversation and, I think well put to the passenger and, hopefully, driver. Clearly, she is misinformed…”
It would be nice to think that being confronted by facts from two different sources, one of them from the boys in blue, the Vauxhall Astra driver now gives cyclists more room on the road because she realises that road tax doesn’t pay for the roadspace in front of her.
Carlton Reid is the executive editor of BikeBiz.com. He drives a Nissan Note "but not very often." He's writing a history book on motoring's cycling beginnings.