The ‘We are traffic’, then ‘Pay the road tax!’ dilemma
How many times did some drivers tell you to step out of the road because you’re not paying any ‘road tax’? I am analysing this more and more common accusation in the UK context. Which is not very different from the one in Romania. Same drivers, same dangerous myths.
I had an interesting discussion yesterday with Richard from Proud to Ride Classics. One of the topics was the so-called ‘road tax’ in UK. It’s quite a hot topic in the news these days, it seems.
Many drivers, who happen to be cyclists as well, are not aware that there isn’t such a thing as a ‘road tax’, says Richard and it’s very often that they will shout at cyclists ‘You have no say on the roads whatsoever’. ‘It is a myth amongst drivers, one that gives them the impression that they can simply rent this way their space on the roads’, he continues. In reality, it is a car tax, a tax on cars and other vehicles, not a tax on roads or a fee to use them. The tax some drivers refer as ‘road tax’ is, in fact, the vehicle excise duty (VED), a charge which varies according to the emissions produced. Road building and maintenance are financed from other taxation. I was aware about this dispute since May, when I read this news in The Guardian about a hit-and-run driver who later ranted on Twitter: ‘I have right of way he doesn’t even pay road tax!’
‘I have right of way he doesn’t even pay road tax!’
Most recently, a MP also provided, during an interview with The Guardian, a distorted understanding of what the road tax is: ‘Don’t you think they [the cyclists] should have to pay something, as a road tax? Why should I pay a hundred and whatever pounds for my little Mini and they don’t?’
Richard mentioned that there’s a website, Ipayroadtax.com, debunking the myth that seems to be around since 1937, when Winston Churchill abolished the road tax. Not only drivers use ‘road tax’ instead of ‘vehicle excise duty’, but also major publications, large organisations and official Government departments tend to favour it.
The owner of the website has his own view on why the term ‘road tax’ is preferred to ‘car tax’ or ‘vehicle excise duty’: ‘In such a car-dominated society it’s easy to continue using terms such as ‘road tax’. According to some motorists, it’s colloquial, there’s no harm in it, it’s a “term understood by all.” Changing the public perception of the phrase ‘road tax’ will take many, many years. […] Vehicle Excise Duty is a mouthful but ‘car tax’ is six letters (road tax is seven) and has the distinction of being both short and understood by all. ‘Car tax’ doesn’t confer “ownership” of the roads to motorists’.
There are some questions arising at this point: How is the myth of ‘road tax’ constructed? Why does is seems to be so resilient? Can such a myth be tamed in a car-driven society?
Why would you want to be part of the traffic and to be considered a vehicle if that equals taxation?
It is useful at this point to understand what kind of mobility means is the bicycle in the eyes of our society. We acknowledge that there is no direct relationship between the Vehicle Excise Duty and government expenditure on public roads. We also understand that the Vehicle Excise Duty is paid to the government for a vehicle licence and that the bicycle is exempted from this because it is not listed, and therefore not considered, being a vehicle. The same exemption is applied to disabled drivers, owners of electric cars, steam vehicles and other few categories of vehicles. This creates a boomerang effect. For the benefit of not having to pay a ‘road tax’, the cyclists are not considered to use a ‘proper’ vehicle, and therefore are denied by some drivers their place in the traffic. So, the ubiquitous slogan ‘We are traffic’, intensely used during the Critical Mass, seem then to go against the rational. Why would you want to be part of the traffic and to be considered a vehicle if that equals taxation? This is one of the most striking ambivalence of cycling not only in UK, but in many other countries as well: once it reaches a certain critical mass and cyclists are visible in traffic, the idea of taxation (and/or registration) often arises in the public discourse. But both taxation and registration are feared that will deter cycling in general.
This is one of the most striking ambivalence of cycling not only in UK, but in many other countries as well: once it reaches a certain critical mass and cyclists are visible in traffic, the idea of taxation (and/or registration) often arises in the public discourse.
As more and more drivers are cyclists as well, there seems to be a growing demand for the former to take bicycle lessons as well. It is important then to put under scrutiny basic operational concepts such as ‘vehicle’, ‘traffic’, ‘public road’. Is ‘vehicle’ any longer an appropriate term to conceptualise the human and non-human actors making up the complexity of road mobilities? Should ‘traffic’ be any longer defined as the adequate result steaming from these mobilities? To what extent can ‘public’ roads successfully assimilate not just the current ‘vehicle’ mobilities, but the complexity of other mobilities increasingly claiming their right to share the roads?