The Consumers' Association, which trades as Which?, prides itself on the accuracy of its information. But the organisation which promises "you're getting the very best advice that's available" and complains about "Bamboozling Bills" has said it will continue to use 'road tax', a term that's 74 years past its sell-by date and which has sometimes led to violence against cyclists.
In the Spring 2010 issue of Which? Car magazine, an article on vehicle excise duty is headlined "Cut the cost of your road tax' and on a double page spread article there are fourteen tax disc roundels featuring the words 'road tax'.
The iPayRoadTax.com campaign was launched in November last year to lobby against the use of 'road tax', which is a phrase sometimes used perjoratively against cyclists. As this video shows, some motorists abuse "no pay, no say" cyclists, thinking vehicle excise duty is a fee to use roads. Cyclists, it is assumed by some drivers, are "tax dodgers" and therefore have less rights to be on roads "built for motorists". (Other tax dodgers include the Queen, Band A cars, disabled drivers, emergency vehicles and ministerial cars).
When Richard Headland, the editor of Which? Car, was pointed to the evidence of abuse against cyclists regarding the term 'road tax' and asked whether he will stop using the term in future editions of one of the UK's longest running car magazines he said the term would continue to be used.
"Having checked on Google analytics today, there are 1 million searches a month in the UK for the term 'car tax', 368,000 for the term 'road tax', 6,600 for the term 'vehicle excise duty' and 40,500 for 'VED'. I think this clearly indicates the relative usage of these terms in the UK when referring to vehicle excise duty - rightly or wrongly.
"When creating online content, it is very important users are able to find it, so we are often guided by such data. There would be little point us creating the most comprehensive guide to UK Vehicle Excise Duty if few people are searching for that term.
"So while I do not propose we will stop using the terms 'car tax' and 'road tax' online, I will endeavour to make sure these are used with the appropriate reference to the full name of the tax.
"We have no political axe to grind by using the phrase 'road tax'. There are many keen cyclists on the Which? Car team and we don't see a lot of the problems you refer to with motorists believing they 'own the roads' because they pay this tax.
"We do not wish to give misleading or inaccurate information but, while I acknowledge the validity of your point of view, it is important we use the language with which people are most familiar - at the very least to help them find our content."
'Road tax' was abolished in 1937, although had been fatally wounded ten years before that by Winston Churchill, the then chancellor of the exchequer. Despite its non-existence many people – including journalists – do believe roads are only for motorists and continue to use the term 'road tax'. In the News of the World on Sunday, columnist Carole Malone wrote about Steve Wheen, a cyclist filling potholes with flowers to warn fellow riders of the road hazard. "If [cyclists] hit them at speed they are likely to be thrown into the path of a car. And what about motorists who – unlike Steve – actually pay to use the road?"
Motorists do not pay for roads; national roads are paid for out of general taxation and local roads are paid out of council tax. VED is a tax on vehicles, with none of the revenue ringfenced for roads.
The iPayRoadTax campaign publicises this fact via a website and a range of cycle jerseys. These jerseys are made by Foska.com and are now available through 34 branches of Evans Cycles, the UK's largest independent cycle shop chain.
Tony Farrelly, editor of cycling website Road.cc, said:
"We've been reporting on the iPayRoadTax campaign since it started. Non-cyclists often express surprise that using the term 'road tax' is such an issue with cyclists but then they've never been on the receiving end of a lecture on why cyclists shouldn't be on the road because we 'don't pay for it.'
"I'm surprised that a Which publication puts its Google ranking ahead of the accuracy of its information. For many media companies being popular is always going to trump being right, but surely not Which? Its reputation for accuracy is what made Which? the trusted and powerful organisation it is today.
Farrelly also had a suggestion: "Which? could still use the term 'road tax' on its website but then in its normal forensic fashion it could explain why it's the wrong term and why it shouldn't be used. Use 'car tax': that's accurate and, as the Which? Car editor admits, it's in widespread use."
The full text of Richard Headland's reply, including his comment about copyright of Which? magazine pages, can be found here.