The “I Pay Road Tax” campaign has done an excellent job of reaching out to cyclists. Every cyclist now knows that “road tax” was abolished in the 1930s, that what motorists pay is “vehicle excise duty”, and that VED goes to the treasury and not directly to the highways agencies. So when a white van man cuts them up and shouts something about paying tax at them, the cyclist can shout back something about zero-rated bands, carbon emissions, and Edwardian legislation. Which is the perfect response to a dangerous nutter who is shouting at you: make yourself look more dangerously insane than your opponent.
Of course, the campaign completely misses the point — especially from the Motorist’s point of view. Which is why, in all the bottle-throwing videos, the cyclist’s cringe-inducingly earnest attempts to explain the detailed content of treasury memos from 1926, are met with blank stares and swear words from the Motorist. What matters to the Motorist is that they are paying a lot of money to drive — and they are paying a lot of money to drive — while the cyclist is paying a negligible amount to cycle. The Motorist doesn’t care about the exact terminology of the fees that they’re paying, or which government department is processing the payment. These details are irrelevant to the issue.
As a campaign to educate cyclists in historical legislative trivia, it’s brilliant. As a campaign to change the attitudes of dangerously childish and spoilt Motorists, and facilitate peaceful considerate coexistence, it is, at best, useless.
Here are some suggestions for things to say when a Motorist tells you that they paid for the road:
- Oh? I hadn’t actually put it up for sale –or– so I can shit on your doorstep if I pay the government £5?
- Not nearly as much as it’s worth.
- No, 97% of that was the wanker tax, you’re still behind on the road payments.
The first encapsulates an issue that is rarely raised: that these are our streets, the neighbourhoods and environments in which we have to live and work. If you think you’ve “bought” them from the government then you’ve been conned: they were never the government’s to sell. Motorists are a minority of London commuters — perhaps it would be fair for their subscriptions to pay for some sort of limited segregated infrastructure for motor vehicles, proportionate to their community. But the rest of the streets, the majority of the streets and streetspace, should belong to the majority of the population — a majority who are not trying to fill it with inappropriate transport. I Pay Road Tax seems in places to be struggling to vocalise exactly these points, but doesn’t quite seem to be able to get it out.
The second is that Motoring and Motorism doesn’t have a single cost. Talk about “road tax” and people will say that they’re paying for road construction and repair. Talk to the slightly more sophisticated Motorists about “vehicle excise duty” and they will say that they’re paying for carbon emissions. Nobody will ever say that they’re paying for particulate pollution — the fines our cities pay, and the thousands of economically active people who are killed by it every year. Nobody will say that they are paying for the thousands of people who die on the roads; for the operations, the years of physiotherapy, and the lifelong disability support for those who are maimed. Nobody will say that they are paying up-front for the later-life care for the obesity-related diseases that their sedentary lifestyle will bring upon themselves. Nobody will say that they are compensating us for the breakup of communities or the closure of the village shop, the deleterious shifts in developmental patterns that affect us all. The issue is not whether the taxes that Motorists pay cover the cost of road repairs: it is whether any amount of money could ever come close to making up for the many and varied destructive forces of car dependency.
The final one recognises the futility of attempting to change the behaviour of dangerous and abusive Motorists. Here at At War With The Motorist we make no attempt to engage with the hardened Motorist himself. People rarely change: Motorists especially so. It took thirty years for Motorists to work out what seatbelts were for. It took thirty years for drink driving to become a faux pas. We probably have at least another fifteen to go before mobile-phone use goes the same way. It takes thirty years to change our culture and practices because it takes thirty years for one ruling generation to die out and for a new one to grow up in a world where seat belts and not drink driving are the norm. The solution to abusive drivers is not to attempt to reason with them about the history of our tax system. Give up on them. Shout wittier abuse back and move on. If you’re feeling optimistic about participatory democracy, engage with those who have the power to order proper enforcement of dangerous driving laws and a reform of planning. Otherwise, focus your efforts in those generations who will be the ones to determine what is and is not socially acceptable over the next 30 years.
I don’t pay road tax: it’s irrelevant.