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Time to end the myth of road tax

Time to end the myth of road tax

The following was sent as a letter to the Editor of The Herald newspaper and appeared in a slightly edited form on the 26th July 2013

The full original version is here:

Dear Editor,

In your recent correspondence regarding cycling and road safety there
have been several references to “road tax” and how this supposedly gives
motorists a greater right to use the roads. It really is time we nailed
this myth once and for all. There is no such thing as “road tax”, the
roads are paid for by all of us out of general taxation. Many
“motorists” like to ignore the inconvenient fact that the road fund was
actually abolished in 1936 by Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the
Exchequer, on the grounds that it was giving motorists what he regarded
as a dangerously inflated sense of ownership of the public road. Boy,
was Churchill right on that one
, 77 years later this delusion still
persists, with many drivers not understanding that owning a car doesn’t
give them a greater right of access to the public road. Indeed there is
no right to drive a motor vehicle, it is a privilege granted under licence.

Just to make it clear, everyone pays for the roads and everyone has the
right to use the roads, either on foot, riding a bicycle or a horse, but
you are only permitted to drive a motor vehicle by licence because of
the inherent risk that you pose to others while doing so. With a driving
licence come responsibilities, such as the legal requirement to drive
with due care and attention. If you are not willing to accept the
responsibilities which come with a driving licence, you should catch a bus.

Your sincerely

Kim Harding


Onus should be on the cyclists?

Onus should be on the cyclists?

Following the death of yet another cyclist on Scotland roads I was deeply saddened to see the following letter in The Herald newspaper:

Onus should be on the cyclists
Tuesday 23 July 2013

ONCE again the strict liability law is being peddled with the aim of protecting cyclists and pedestrians (Agenda, The Herald, July 19).

The writer, Brenda Mitchell, states “our goal is to change the culture among road users”.

As a pedestrian and former cyclist I would suggest that rather than attempting to change the law and further burdening other road users the only culture that needs changing is that of the cyclist.

Among the initiatives they may consider adopting are wearing suitable clothing and protective equipment (for head and hands) and obeying the current motor traffic laws – and not riding upon the footpath.

Perhaps it is also time for legislators to require all cyclists to fit, and sound, a suitable warning device in order to alert unsuspecting pedestrians to their presence.

In short, the public at large would be better protected if cyclists obeyed the law as it stands rather than seeking to introduce legislation that would be nothing more than another impost upon the motoring public who, after all, already pay to use the road.

Ian F Mackay,

5 Smillie Place,



Lets just take a closer look, Mr Mackay starts by asserting that he is a “pedestrian and former cyclist”. Why does he feel the need to do this? We are all pedestrians at some point, and why is he a “former cyclist”? Oddly he doesn’t tell us, he also doesn’t let us know whether or not he is a driver (although it is implied), again why? Could it be that he is embarrassed to admit to being a driver, when he goes on to complain about “further burdening other road users” before going on to suggest that the only problem is with cyclists. Which other road users would this be? Are pedestrians and horse riders going to feel that a strict liability law is going to burden them? Or would the more vulnerable users of public space feel that a law making the operators of dangerous and heavy machinery being used that space liable (under civil law) for their actions, giving the most vulnerable greater protection? After all, this has been shown to be effective in the workplace where there is a strict liability on employers to ensure safe working practices.

He suggests that cyclists “may consider adopting wearing suitable clothing and protective equipment (for head and hands)” – is this for the protection of other roads user? Or merely trying to pass the blame when cyclists are injured by negligent actions of other road users? To use the workplace analogy again, the use of “safety equipment” is not a substitute for operating potentially dangerous machinery in a safe manner.

Then comes “obeying the current motor traffic laws – and not riding upon the footpath”. Hum, are cyclists “motor traffic”? Certainly they are traffic, as are pedestrians (the origin of the word traffic is from the Arabic word taraffaqa, which means ‘to walk along slowly together’, only in the late 20th century did it become “to drive along slowly together”, we needn’t go into the origin of the word “jam”). However, according to Mr Mackay, it is the failure of cyclists to obey laws which is the cause of all the harm to roads users. This fails to explain why not a single one of the 54 pedestrians killed on Scotland’s roads last year were killed by a person riding bicycle, all where killed as a result of being hit by motor vehicles.

Next, we come to “Perhaps it is also time for legislators to require all cyclists to fit, and sound, a suitable warning device in order to alert unsuspecting pedestrians to their presence.” How exactly will this help to deal with the problem of 54 pedestrians killed on Scotland’s roads? Some of those were mown down by motor vehicles driven on the foot way, others killed while crossing the road at pedestrian crossings by motorists jumping the lights. Oh, but of course, Mr Mackay isn’t concerned with the real issue of people being killed or the roads being too dangerous for many people to ride a bike on. He has given no thought as to why shared use paths are over crowded and how we might go about dealing with this issue, such as making the roads safer and providing a fairer allocation of space to non-motorists. He is more worried that bad drivers might actually be held to account for the injuries and deaths they cause, which is what would happen if we were to “introduce legislation that would be nothing more than another impost upon the motoring public” (although the version I have proposed would also apply to cyclists).

Instead, according Mr Mackay bad driving is apparently OK and should continue to tolerated, on the grounds that “the motoring public who, after all, already pay to use the road.” So there we have it, we shouldn’t do anything to hold bad drivers to account, because they pay “road tax”. Of course there is a major flaw in this argument, there is no such thing as “road tax” , we all pay for the roads, and we should all have the right to be safe from harm by others whilst using those roads.

Strict Liability and the Road Share campaign

Strict Liability and the Road Share campaign

For some time now, I have been in favour of a law of Strict Liability. This defines who is liable when collisions occur on the roads. So I was pleased to learn that a Peebles lawyer, Brenda Mitchell, had started a campaign for Strict Liability called Road Share. This is a very welcome move, Brenda has done a lot of research on this issue and makes a very clear case for including Strict Liability as part of our civil law, in the same way as the majority of European countries have done (see map below).

Why it is that Scotland hasn’t made this change yet is unclear, it is not as if the concept of strict liability does not already exist under Scots law, as it underpins much of the Health and Safety legislation. For example, if you are felling a tree with a chainsaw, and a third party walks into the line of fall of the tree, it is the person operating the chainsaw that is held to be liable if there is injury to the third party. Likewise, if you fire a firearm, you are automatically held liable under civil law if you hit someone accidentally, and liable under the criminal law if you shoot them deliberately. This is an important distinction and one that is often missed by critics of Strict Liability. This new campaign to apply the principles of strict liability to road traffic collisions is about changing the civil law code, not the criminal law, where the central principle is (and will remain) that the accused will remain innocent until proven guilty. Strict liability is solely about who has the greater duty of care, and that should clearly be the person who is in the position to do the most harm.

Taking the firearm analogy above, we allow people to own and use firearms strictly under licence, because firearms are fundamentally dangerous. Similarly, we only permit motor vehicles to be driven on the public highway under licence because motor vehicles are fundamentally dangerous: a moment’s inattention can be fatal, and not necessarily only to the driver. For this reason, any suggestion that pedestrians or cyclists owe a duty of care to motorists is absurd, as in the event of a car hitting a pedestrian, the driver is very rarely, if ever, the one that is hurt.

Similarly, a case can be made that cyclists do owe a duty of care to pedestrians, and this would be covered as part of the hierarchy of strict liability. This, however, would not lead to the need for cyclists to take out compulsory third party insurance. Many cyclists already have third party insurance (although they might not realise it), in my case it is bundled in with my household insurance. The thing about insurance is that it is priced according to risk, with riding a bicycle for transport or leisure being a low risk activity such for causing harm to others (sports cycling maybe excluded). As the risk of a claim is so low for the insurance companies, they feel that they can bundle it in with other insurance packages for free, as incentive to buy. This is not the case with motoring insurance, where premiums are higher because the risk of a claim is very much higher. It is because driving is inherently dangerous that is a legal requirement for all drivers to carry third party insurance, if the risk to others was as low as that posed by cyclists, then there would be not legal compunction.

A law of strict liability would also have an impact on motoring insurance premiums, and the good news for drivers is that it would result in lower premiums. The main reason for this is that the UK is one of the most expensive countries for motor insurance BECAUSE it doesn’t have a law of strict liability. Therefore, in the event of a collision involving a motorist and a vulnerable road user resulting in injury to the vulnerable road user, that person often has little choice but to sue the motorist to gain compensation from the motorist’s insurance company. Often the insurance company will try to reduce the payout by making claims of “contributory negligence”, which is often a way of blaming the victim for being hit and has nothing to do with fairness. The only people to really gain from this type of litigation are the lawyers.

Given that there are so many obvious advantages to having a law of strict liability, it seems strange that there is so much opposition to it. Part of this is due to a failure understand that it benefits everyone in some way. Another reason is the mistaken belief that there is some sort of right to drive motor vehicles which there isn’t – driving is only permitted under licence and that licence comes with responsibilities. If you are a safe and considerate driver, you have nothing to fear and much to gain from a law of strict liability. It is time that we, as a society, vigorously challenge the Mr Toad’s attitude to driving. Strict liability is not a panacea, it can not by itself make our roads safer, but it is a part of the solution.


The BBC and the myth of “road tax”

The BBC and the myth of “road tax”

Why is the BBC so keen on perpetuating the myth of “road tax”? The term is totally misleading in that it suggests that roads are paid for out of taxes raised on motoring. As I have pointed out before, this is totally false. Today (Monday, 29th Oct 2012) there is a news story about a right wing lobbying group suggesting that the roads system be privatised and a system of two tier charging for use of the roads be introduced. I first heard about this on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, which made persistent references to “Road Tax”. This was then repeated on the hourly news bulletins. It is not just today that the BBC has made references to “Road Tax”, it frequently uses this misleading term for motoring taxes.

Today I found this so annoying that I decided to send a formal complaint to the BBC (Case number CAS-1748928-PFD9YS):

In BBC programmes and News broadcasts we are being told that there is a thing called “Road Tax”, this is simply not true. There is no such thing as “Road Tax”, there are taxes on motoring such as Vehicle Excise Duty. These taxes are a part of general taxation and do not contribute directly to the maintenance of the roads, any more than taxes on tobacco pay directly for the NHS.

It is time the BBC stopped propagating this myth. The Road Fund was abolished in 1936 by Winston Churchill, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the grounds that it was giving motorists a dangerously inflated sense of ownership of the public road. By doing so, he brought to an end to hypothecated road taxation in Britain. It is the BBC’s stated Mission that it is to ” inform, educate and entertain”. The perpetuation of the Myth of Road Tax is clearly contrary to the first two of these aims. Please in future make it clear in your news and current affairs programmes that motoring taxes are not hypothecated and have not been so since 1936. There is a very real issue around the motorists’ dangerously inflated sense of ownership of the public road, as it leads to death and serious injury on a daily basis. Research has shown that there are over 800 deaths a year (mostly of pedestrians and cyclists) due to disrespectful driving as a result of this mistaken sense of ownership.

Where your entertainment programmes make reference to “Road Tax”, could you make it clear that this is fiction, and not a reference to the real world.


I hope to get a reply within the next two weeks, and will post it here when I do.

There was a time when the BBC was a respected organisation which was prepared to speak truth to power, but those days are sadly gone and now it just repeats PR releases from dodgy “think tanks” without questioning validity or accuracy. It is really sad that it has come to this.

Manifesto suggestions for active travel revisited

Manifesto suggestions for active travel revisited

With the Scottish elections coming up in May, I thought I would revamp my manifesto suggestions for active travel.

Active travel is a great idea as it achieves so many policy objectives: it is clean, it is green, it reduces congestion in towns and cities, it can boost local economic activity, and it is healthy (active people, such as regular cyclists, live longer). In addition, people who use active ways of travel to get to work are more productive, and it is relatively cheap and therefore has great potential to save money (the future savings in health cost alone make worthwhile). So, with a general election looming, I thought I would make a few suggestions, which the political parties might like to adopt for their Manifestos for the coming Holyrood elections with regard to active travel.

First off, what is active travel? Well, at its simplest it is making short journeys by active means, such as walking or cycling. So how do we encourage active travel, here is a proposal from an unexpected source:


  • Treat walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes
  • Ensure convenient access for people of all ages and abilities
  • Go beyond minimum design standards
  • Collect data on walking and biking trips
  • Set a mode share target for walking and bicycling
  • Protect sidewalks and shared-use paths the same way roadways are protected (for example, snow removal)
  • Improve non-motorized facilities during maintenance projects

Now these might sound like the sort of policies you would get from a liberal neo-socialist European country (or Enrique Peñalosa in Bogotá), but just look at the spellings, this was cut and pasted from the official blog of the US Secretary of Transportation. If the Americans can do it, why can’t we?

So here are a few other suggestions:

Strict liability. As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, this is an issue which the Scottish Parliament can and should legislate on.

Reduce speed limits in built up areas from 30 mph to 20 mph, throughout all built up areas. People living in built up areas want to feel safe on the streets. One of the major reasons for people not feeling safe when walking or cycling is the speed of traffic in areas with busy roads. The thing with 20 mph zones is that not only do people feel safer, they are safer. There is a wealth of data on the effects of these lower speed limits, studies have shown that introductions of 20 mph zones are associated with a reduction in road casualties of up to 42%.

Enforce the speed limits. Drivers who speed are more likely to be involved in collisions, and they are also more likely to commit other driving violations, such as red-light running and driving too close to the vehicle in front. A DfT 2007 Speed Survey showed that on 30 mph roads, 49% of car drivers exceed 30 mph and 19% exceed 35 mph. Tougher enforcement of the existing traffic laws would also help, currently the police are reluctant to prosecute drivers exceeding the 30 mph speed limit, unless they are travelling in excess of 40 mph. This is a major reason for people not feeling safe when walking or cycling in areas with busy roads. This is creeping on to the political agenda in Scotland, but all too slowly.

Cycle training. There is an excellent training programme available for all school children in Scotland, but less than half of Scotland’s school children get the training. Cycle training to at least National Standard Level 2 (Basic on road skills) and preferably to Level 3 (Advanced roads skills) should be part of the school curriculum, this is an import life skill, not just a leisure activity like golf.

A tax car on parking spaces. Over the last twenty years is there has been significant growth of retail parks and shopping malls, these use large car parks and have greatly increased levels of traffic congestion, while at the same time strangling the life out of small High Street retailers. One way to redress the balance would be to tax car parking spaces. This could also be applied to workplace car parking to discourage commuting by car and again reduce congestion.

Encourage the provision of cycle parking. This could provide real economic benefit, an Australian study has shown each square metre of space allocated to cars contributed A$6 per hour in expenditure, whereas each square metre of space allocated to bicycles brought in five times as much (A$31 per hour). A significant element is that a bicycle take up 12% of the space used by a car, therefore, one car parking space can be used by 8 bikes. So it can be seen that replacing car parking with bicycle parking makes economic sense as part of a parking management plan.

Even the Westminster government has recognised that pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users provide as much if not more spending power than car users in town centres. However, there is a consistent misinterpretation by traders that the majority of their customers arrive by car, and this is not just a UK phenomenon. In Graz, Austria, traders reported that 58% of customers arrived by car when objective data showed that this was 32%, while 68% arrived by sustainable travel modes and yet traders believed just 42% did so. Surveys in Edinburgh, Bristol, and Leicester have shown similar results.

To encourage the provision of cycle parking, rebates and grants could be given for providing secure covered cycle parking within 50m of the front entrance to buildings. Also, to introduce a planning requirement that all new developments should have to provide secure covered cycle parking within 50m of the main entrance to the building, at a minimum rate of one bicycle space per 500 m2 of floor area for commercial offices, and one bicycle space per 900 m2 of floor area for retail and most other commercial uses. Of course people also need secure bicycle storage at home, and this should be encouraged.

Require planners to count pedestrians and cyclists when they carry out traffic surveys, by law. Every traffic planner in the country can tell you how many motor vehicles there are on the roads in their area, but few (if any) can tell you how many cyclists and pedestrians use the same routes. How can you plan for non-motorised traffic if you don’t know how many people are travelling by these means?

Commit a minimum of 5% of the transport budget to be spent on active travel. Let’s face it, 5% isn’t a big ask, the return on investment from active travel infrastructure is far higher than for other forms of transport, by as much as 20:1! This is far greater than the return on investment from providing infrastructure for electric cars. However, currently less than 2% of the total transport budget is spent on active travel, and yet we are all pedestrians at some time in the day. No one can drive absolutely everywhere, no matter how much some people might want to…!

Introduce a lifetime driving ban for drivers who kill, without exception. Currently drivers who cause death by dangerous driving are given a five year ban, starting from the date of sentence (this runs concurrently with any prison term). Drivers who kill, but are convicted of lesser offences, often leave court with little more than a fine and six penalty points on their licence. Anyone causing the death of another by means other than driving can normally expect a substantial prison term, so why are we so lenient with drivers?

Give people back their travel choices, help them to choose active travel, for a longer, healthier, and happier life!

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