[UPDATE] Speeding killer driver given lenient sentence; BBC reporter belittles death of the cyclist, says “[cyclists] don’t pay road tax”

Kevin Hill, Assistant Editor of BBC East Midlands Today, has sent out a boilerplate answer to all those who complained about a road death story broadcast in mid-April. He admits that the presenter at fault could have asked the “road tax” question “more carefully” and then gives what he believes to be the more carefully constructed question. This second question is also factually incorrect.

Thank you for contacting us about our story involving Karl Austin who was killed while taking part in a time trial on the A50 in Derbyshire. I was producing East Midlands Today on that day and I’d like to offer some background information which should give you a fuller picture of our decisions.

In the light of recent deaths, the sole purpose of the interview was to discuss the use of busy main roads for cycling time-trials and every question was asked in that context. Many people have judged the entire interview on one selective clip posted on several internet sites including YouTube.

In that clip our presenter puts forward a common criticism many motorists have of cyclists that since they don’t pay “Road Tax” how do they justify using the highway? “Road Tax” was a colloquial reference to Vehicle Excise Duty. With hindsight we accept the question should have been phrased more carefully. It would have been better to ask: “Many motorists will say they’re taxed to drive their car and they’re not allowed to race on the roads – why should cyclists?” [my emphasis]

The interviewee – John Stewart – was given the time to correct the misconceptions about “Road Tax”, pointing out that the tax no longer exists, that VED doesn’t pay for road maintenance and that cyclists pay all sorts of other taxes.

You may not be aware that this was the second time we’d reported on Karl’s death. On March 6, the lorry driver accused of careless driving appeared pleaded guilty when he appeared before Derby Magistrates. In that night’s programme we carried a report on the case, then followed it with a studio interview about the growing demands for greater safety measures to protect cyclists. I believe this sequence put the issue of cycling safety into context for our viewers. It also painted a picture of Karl as a talented, experienced cyclist who would be deeply missed by his family and friends.

On April 12, we featured a report about the sentence given to the lorry driver who caused Karl’s death. This was followed by an interview with Mr Stewart, who organised and took part in the time trial in which Karl was killed. The reason for looking at this subject was simple: many people are just unaware that time trials can be held on almost any public road. At a time when there are high-profile calls for greater safety for cyclists – as discussed at length in our March 6th programme – the idea of using a dual carriageway for a timed race appears to be contradictory.

I have re-examined all our coverage of this story including the interview with Mr Stewart and I don’t believe it was an aggressive line of questioning. It was certainly challenging but Mr Stewart responded calmly and robustly. I do not agree with those people who have accused us of insulting Karl’s memory. On two separate occasions, our court reporters have carefully explained that Mr Austin loved his sport, was highly-regarded as a competitor and would be missed by his family. We have remained in contact with Mr Austin’s widow and father and I will be talking to them again over the next few days to discuss any concerns they may have had over our latest coverage.

Thank you for contacting us,

Regards,

Kevin Hill
Assistant Editor

I replied.

Hi Kevin

Thanks for the reply.

Your second attempt at the question would also be wrong.

A. Motorists are taxed on the emission levels their cars emit. A car can be stood still all year round but the VED would be the same. The common mistake people make is to think that VED is some sort of fee to use roads, when it’s nothing of the kind.

B. Technically, motorists *can* race on the public highway, under certain conditions, see ‘road rally’.

Your presenter voiced a common criticism that’s factually incorrect and he didn’t state it was factually incorrect.

Yes, the guest was then able to correct the presenter but the way the question was phrased showed a lack of understanding of the basic issues of what can and cannot be legally done on roads. The question was also crass and, in the context of a road death, was unsympathetic. More research should have been carried out by the presenter beforehand.

Was the question formulated and agreed in advance or was it asked ‘on the fly’?

Here’s the beef: if this had been a news story about a person being killed when crossing the road while taking part in, say, a sponsored walk, a BBC reporter would not question whether that person had paid to use that road and as pedestrians don’t pay “road tax” they shouldn’t be on roads. The full background to this story is carried below.

+++++++

Put a lit rag on a furniture shop sofa: 11 years in jail. Change your Facebook status to “let’s start a riot”: four months in jail. Kill a cyclist with a truck, admit to speeding and dangerous driving: suspended sentence and a two year driving ban. It’s against this background that we should view last night’s ignorant and insensitive question by a BBC reporter, interviewing the organiser of the time trial event at which 47-year old Karl Austin lost his life. More on this below.

The sentence handed down to the 62-year old HGV driver was, in fact, severe compared to similar SMIDSY cases. Many drivers who kill dispute they were driving dangerously (even if they are caught speeding or texting at the wheel) and are often charged with the lesser offence of careless driving, with slap-in-the-wrist sentencing that makes a mockery of the justice system.

Karl Austin was killed in broad daylight, on a long, flat stretch of road with good visibility at the time. His death occurred on the A50 dual carriageway in June 2011. Yesterday the speeding HGV driver who killed him was sentenced at Derby Crown Court. The judge told the driver he had been guilty of “an appalling loss of concentration” but did not hand down a sentence that might send out a message to other drivers, a message that motoring requires 100 percent concentration and that if you kill a fellow human because of inattention you ought to be automatically charged with, at the very least, involuntary manslaughter.

Motor vehicles are heavy, fast and, in far too many cases, deadly. Inattention while operating a piece of machinery that can kill should carry a stiff penalty.

Yet Judge Michael Fowler told the driver:

“Passing a draconian sentence on you doesn’t in any way honour the death of Karl Austin.”

Huh? Sentences are not there to honour the dead, they are there to punish wrong doing and deter others from committing similar crimes.

According to @kayaburgess of The Times, Austin’s father Keith said: “Our hope that a stiff sentence would send out a signal…that more care was needed where cyclists are concerned has been dashed.”

Keith Austin was “quite appalled” at the sentence but had been prepared for such a “lenient” decision.

Lawyer Martin Porter, ‘The Cycling Silk’, has a thoughtful and considered article on sentencing for SMIDSY motorists on his blog.

He writes:

“Motorists must have brought home to them that the consequences of failing to drive carefully around a vulnerable road user could be very severe for them, as well as to the person they endanger.”

It’s not just cyclists who suffer from the consequences of “inattention”, it’s pedestrians and, of course, other motorists, too.

A news report on BBC East Midlands Today [BBC iPlayer link] allowed Austin’s family to make many of these points, and the outside broadcast reporter filed a relatively balanced piece. However, back in the studio, the programme’s co-host asked a guest an incredibly insensitive and ignorant question about the rights of cyclists to ride on roads.

BBC East Midlands Today’s chief reporter Quentin Rayner told John Stewart, a cycling club official: “[cyclists] don’t pay any road tax, how do you justify using the highway?”

Stewart calmly countered with facts, but why did Rayner – he’s no Paxman – ask such a question? Does Rayner genuinely believe roads are paid for by a tax abolished in 1937? And, further, does he really believe cyclists shouldn’t ride on highways if they haven’t paid this non-existent tax?

The use of the phrase “road tax” is no big deal, it’s a term in common use. The Post Office and the AA and other organisations now use the more accurate term ‘car tax’ but, still, it would be mere semantics to criticise somebody for using a colloquial term. However, it’s not semantics when the person or organisation using the term for a tax that was abolished in 1937 believes that payment of this “road tax” pays for roads and gives those who they believe pay this tax more right to be on the road than cyclists, who, it’s assumed, don’t pay this tax.

Car tax, or vehicle excise duty, is a tax on tail-pipe emissions, it’s not a fee to use the road. Many small cars emit low amounts of CO2 so don’t pay vehicle excise duty. Roads are paid for by general and local taxation, not VED. Millions of drivers don’t pay VED. Accusing cyclists of not paying “road tax” is an attempt to assert that cyclists have lesser rights to be on roads, or no rights at all. This is a point of view that endangers cyclists who are often verbally and physically abused by motorists for “not paying road tax.”

Quentin Rayner should apologise to the family of Karl Austin for asking his ignorant and insensitive question. He should also apologise for not questioning why killer drivers seem to get pitifully low sentences.

BBC Look East backtracks on ‘road tax’ report

Last week BBC Look East ran a news story about a cyclist being knocked from his bike by an inattentive driver but did not mention any police action being taken. Instead, BBC TV reporter Kim Riley read out viewer comments which complained that cyclists “do not pay road tax”. This factual error was not flagged as such by the BBC and nor was another comment about roads being funded only by motorists flagged as wrong. I put the offending clip on YouTube and it quickly went viral, with 6000+ views in just a few days. BBC Look East was deluged with complaints, leading to a follow-up story on Monday night’s show.

This report majored on the abolition of ‘road tax’ in 1937. This is a fact rarely, if ever, reported in the mainstream media. Kim Riley also featured the fact roads are funded by general taxation, an important point. Many motorists assume they, and they alone, pay for roads so, goes the flawed argument, cyclists have less rights to ride on those roads.

Kim Riley said: “My report on Thursday sent the cycling websites buzzing with disapproval. The complaints are still flooding in.”

He read out four comments, including two from doctors. Dr Tony Raven said he was “appalled by the standard of reporting,” said Riley.

“None of [those who commented] will be nominating me for journalist of the year,” joked Riley.

The BBC backtracking was relatively light-hearted aiming to dampen down the debate which, at times, can get heated.

iPayRoadTax-com 13

The story follows on from earlier successes by the iPayRoadTax campaign. Last month both Which?Car magazine and the Plain English Campaign agreed to use the more accurate ‘car tax’ when referring to Vehicle Excise Duty.

WinstonChurchill1925CommonSense

BBC reporter reads out ‘road tax’ gibe after cyclist floored by car

When Paul Jones of Cambridge supplied helmetcam footage to BBC Look East of himself being hit from behind by a car, he probably thought this would educate viewers to the need to share the road properly. Instead, last night’s regional news programme for East Anglia broadcast a number of hate-filled rants from viewers.

Helmetcam evidence showed Jones knocked from his bike but the BBC news programme insensitively cut to comments from viewers wholly ignorant of how roads are funded. The BBC reporter said lots of comments had been received asking “Why don’t cyclists pay road tax?” The reporter did not point out such a tax does not exist.

Another viewer had complained “Why do cyclists have a given right to complain about cars? Cars that pay for facilities [cyclists] use?”

Remember, this is directly after footage showing the cyclist being smashed to the ground by an inattentive Merc driver.

Now, those who text, email and call in to regional TV news programmes are self-selected and in no way represent a genuine cross-section of society but if the BBC reporter and programme editors don’t seem to know that roads are paid for by all, not just motorists, exactly how widespread is this ignorance?

This is important. As cyclists, we have to ride close to motorists, many of whom believe they, alone, pay for roads. And, no doubt, with “ownership” comes rights. As cyclists don’t pay for roads (we do) we have less rights to be on those roads.

This BBC Look East segment is the clearest evidence yet that the belief in the existence of the mythical ‘road tax’ isn’t a minority opinion. The belief that cyclists “don’t pay for roads” is widely held.

And that’s frightening. I have written to BBC Look East expressing this fear, letter below.

Who Pays For Britain's Roads?

In last night’s segment about cyclists your reporter and editors allowed comments from viewers which were wrong, misleading and dangerous.

When viewers asked why cyclists don’t pay road tax, your reporter could have said because it doesn’t exist. The ‘road tax’ canard is used to hate on cyclists and it’s unacceptable that the BBC should air such views without adding the rejoinder that ‘road tax’ was abolished in 1937 and that roads are paid for by general and local taxation, not motorists.

The end of ‘road tax’ (1909-1937) was started by Winston Churchill in 1926. The oddly fascinating history of ‘road tax’ – and why it’s a loaded term – can be found here. ‘Road tax’ is, in fact, Vehicle Excise Duty (or ‘car tax’). Roads were not built for motorists, roads are not paid for by motorists and roads are not owned by motorists. All road users have to share what is a limited resource. Ignorance about how roads are funded leads to an awful lot of abuse of cyclists. The cyclist you included in the film was hit from behind in broad daylight. Was the motorist charged? Why didn’t the BBC explore this angle instead of airing ignorant comments from viewers who, if they are motorists, don’t seem to understand that roads are for everybody not just those with internal combustion engines.

I started iPayRoadTax.com to set the record straight on ‘road tax’. Viewers have every right to write in to complain about something they have viewed but when those views are factually incorrect the BBC ought to stress this otherwise the BBC seems to be endorsing those views.

Carlton Reid

Hat-tip to Cole Stone.

UPDATE:

BBC Look East was deluged with complaints about its ‘road tax’ error. On Monday 24th May it broadcast a more accurate follow-up: