When motorists believe they’ve paid for use of the road, they can be dangerous

Some motorists believe cyclists are lesser beings, and shouldn’t get in the way of cars. Why? Because of the shockingly widespread belief that cyclists don’t pay for roads.

In fact, we do. We all do. Everybody pays. Every tax-payer, that is. Road maintenance, road building and road design are all paid for out of general and local taxation. Motorists do not pay for roads. Road tax does not exist, has not existed since 1937. It’s now car tax, vehicle excise duty, a tax on emissions.

In the Spring edition of ‘Good Motoring’ from GEM Motoring Assist, columnist Jane King said cyclists were “itinerant road users.”

Hating on horse riders, too (they also ‘get in the way’ of cars), King wrote:

“You’d think that cyclists, being at one with the elements, would be able to deal sensibly with [passing motorists]. Unfortunately, certainly of late, this group seems to consist of real and exacting enthusiasts who behave as if every training trip is a stage of the Tour de France. And, as such they have a narrow blinkered vision of how the road should be used at that moment – which is purely for them. The motor vehicle must, and will, take at least second place. Sorry – who pays road tax, exactly?”

Such ignorance of what and who pays for roads can lead to violence against anybody not in a motorised vehicle. There are legions of examples of motorists abusing cyclists for “not paying road tax.” (Although horse riders don’t get tarred with the same brush: it’s obviously a money thing. Some motorists assume anybody on a bike is a pauper, and can’t possibly own a car, too. Which is daft because cars can be pretty cheap, a lot cheaper than decent top-flight bikes, for instance).

In Brazil on Friday, one motorist took the law into his own hands and smashed into a peaceful, beautiful Critical Mass ride.

This helmetcam footage is horrific, showing a speeding VW Golf ramming its way through 150 cyclists.

Brazilian drivers pay Imposto sobre Propriedade de Veículos Automotores or IPVA, our equivalent of VED. However, this site for Brazilian newcomers calls it a ‘road tax’.

Who knows what went through the mind of the 47-year old male driver seen causing the carnage in that footage? He was held up for a few minutes by folks on bikes and he suddenly lost it, rear-ending unsuspecting cyclists in a few seconds of madness. Apologist commenters on YouTube videos of the incident have said he had a sick passenger in the car and was desperate to get past the cyclists, who were blocking just one road among many in this Brazilian city.

Do those who decry Critical Mass as “irresponsible” say the same about fuel protestors who block roads? Or how about taxi drivers blockading London for an hour? “We are sorry that we have to block the streets to make our voices heard, but we feel we have no other option,” said a London cabby last year, who very possibly rants when he sees the few minutes of disruption caused when Critical Mass rides past.

Thankfully, it appears none of the hit cyclists were killed, but they could have been. Many were badly injured and there was an ugly, sickening pile of smashed bikes. The driver absconded, but not before reportedly removing his number plates. So, did police chase him down? No, they are waiting for him to turn himself in, a promise made by the 47 year olds lawyer. In Brazilian media reports, the police are still calling the carnage an “accident.”

Back to the UK…
Motorists do not own the roads, nor do cyclists, or equestrians. We all have the right to pass and re-pass on public roads. Those motorists who truly believe their annual car tax payment is a fee to use roads are 100 percent wrong. Some who believe this, begrudgingly allow cyclists to “share the roads, paid for by motorists” but who knows how many close-shaves – the buzzing of cyclists – is due to this mistaken belief? Too many. Way too many.


iPayRoadTax.com is an ironically-named campaign supporting the road rights of cyclists. The message that cyclists have equal rights on the roads is carried on iPayRoadTax t-shirts and jerseys.

Never mind the length, feel the width

Jesmond Road Google Street View

You may call a spade a spade, but when it comes to roads, there are a confusing array of descriptive terms, many of them prescriptive. A public highway isn’t just a road, it can also be a footway. A whatway? A footway is ‘a way comprised in a highway which also comprises a carriageway, being a way over which the public have a right of way on foot only.’

A footpath is a ‘highway over which the public have a right of way on foot only, not being a footway.’ Confused yet?

The word pavement isn’t very helpful either. Technically, it’s the word for the road surface, which is how Americans use the term. ‘Cyclists shouldn’t ride on pavements’ confuses the hell out of Americans. The word pavement comes from pavimentum, the top stone slabs of a Roman road.

And read that footway definition again: it includes the word carriageway. This isn’t a road restricted to carriages of the motoring kind. Got cows? Keep geese? You can herd your cattle along a carriageway. You can lead a flock of geese down your High Street. [Critical Mass leaders take note, include a few animals in your next rolling demo].

Motorists – the Johnny-come-latelies of public highway users – do not have more rights than other road users, except on motorways. Nor are motorists traffic. According to the Highways Act 1980, traffic also includes pedestrians and animals.
On Wednesday, the BBC carried a news story about a road user who repeatedly pressed a pedestrian crossing button to protest against the amount of cars and lorries rattling through his village.

The BBC reported that criminal law solicitor Robert Brown, a partner at Corker Binning, said such an action might possibly be considered an obstruction of the highway:

“A court might decide if he is doing it to prevent the passage of vehicles. It is a novel point but he is impeding the passage of vehicles and that is the purpose of the highway.”

It’s one of the purposes, but not the only one. Highways are for people, too, whether or not they are in, on or being dragged by vehicles. Most folks will think the solicitor meant cars and buses and HGVs, but he was careful to say vehicles. In law, vehicles aren’t just cars and trucks. Vehicles also include sledges, prams, wheelbarrows, sedan chairs, carts and litters. And bicycles.

Nick Hancox of Nicholas Hancox Solicitors in Norfolk, a specialist in highway law, told iPayRoadTax.com:

Most highways are open for all traffic: cars, lorries, motorbikes, push-bikes, people on horseback, people leading horses, people with prams, pedestrians and for people with flocks of geese or sheep or whatever.

Some highways which would otherwise be in that first category are restricted by Traffic Orders: ‘No HGVs’ or ‘No Pedestrians’, or whatever.
Some highways are only for a limited class of traffic:  Bridleways are only for horses, bicycles and pedestrians.  Footpaths are only for pedestrians.
Drove roads, or driftways, were primarily for driving livestock to market, but they were, can be, and are, also used by horseriders, wheeled carriages and pedestrians.
So, if your question were “Can I legally drive a flock of geese down my local High Street?”, the answer would usually be “Yes”.  A traffic order prohibiting the driving of livestock is legally possible but in practice unlikely.

Rights of Way are mostly determined not by statute, but by common law. In other words by court judgments down the ages or, mostly, by what use has been made of the highway in question.

Highway is defined at common law as a way over which all members of the public have the right to pass and repass. Their use of the way must be as of right and not on sufferance or by licence.

The public highway is a shared resource; we must all operate give and take. This was made clear in the case of Harper v GM Haden & Sons Ltd of 1933. The judge said:

No member of the public has an exclusive right to use the highway. He has merely a right to use it subject to the reasonable use of others…The law…recognises that there are…competing public interests. The law relating to the user of highways is in truth the law of give and take. Those who use them must in doing so have reasonable regard to the convenience and comfort of others and must not themselves expect a degree of convenience only obtainable by disregarding that of other people.

Not every road is open to all. Some roads have Limitations Of Use Restrictions. For example, cyclists and pedestrians are not allowed to plan routes along motorways.

According to the Department for Transport, there are 33,435 miles of major roads in the UK, including 2211 miles of motorway. However, there are 211,675 miles of B, C and unclassified roads. So, that makes 242,899 miles of roads that all vehicles can use, including bicycles.

The 33,435 miles of major roads are what’s known as the Strategic Road Network. The SRN is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. This branch of the Department for Transport says: “The Highways Agency is responsible for all the users of this network – the cyclist, the pedestrian, the horses and their riders, not just the cars and lorries!”

As I said on this earlier story, the overwhelming majority of roads were not built with motorists in mind. Only two short stretches of road were ever built with the Road Fund (1910-1937), paid for by motorists with a ‘road tax’. (I’ll reveal the identities of these roads in a later posting).

Many of today’s dual carriageways may be blacktopped, plastered with white thermoplastic road markings and zoned with barriers but such accoutrements are largely cosmetic. When TV and movies want to portray a period scene, production crews hide road signs and spread dirt over the blacktop. Most period dramas tend to show 18th Century roads as twisty and narrow but the main ones were far, far wider than most people imagine. Stretches of the Great North Road were once much wider than even the widest parts of the current M1 motorway.

And, in my hometown of Newcastle, there’s a road not far from where I’m writing that is an excellent example of a four-lane road that most motorists probably assume was widened for their convenience. In fact, Jesmond Road – pictured at the top of this article – has been as wide as it is since 1836.

Road Not Designed for Motor Carriages

The current road is bounded on two sides by old cemeteries. Despite aborted plans to dig up graves in 1971 to make way for a motorway, the walls of the two cemeteries have not shifted. Jesmond Road was made wide for all users, and was made wide at least seventy years before the repeal of the ‘Red Flag Act’ in 1896 after which motorcars started to encroach on Britain’s ancient road network.

Jesmond Road clogged

Within ten years, motorists believed roads of all lengths and widths were theirs. A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:

The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.

This was wrong in 1907, and wrong today, too.

Most roads were not built for use of cars

Viewed from a car windscreen, roads look as though they were built for cars and trucks. Motorways and the elevated arterial road systems of the 1960s and 1970s seem to bear this out but such car-centric highways are the exception not the norm. For every one mile of motorway, there are 95 miles of roads conceived originally for non-motorised traffic.

According to the Department for Transport, there are 33,435 miles of major roads in the UK, including 2211 miles of motorway. However, there are 211,675 miles of B, C and unclassified roads.

The first motorway was built in 1959; a great many of Britain’s other roads are prehistoric (the Romans built many new roads but they also re-used plenty of existing ones).


In the 1880s, bicycles became the first through-traffic to use roads since the decline of the stagecoach – and the success of the railway – fifty years earlier. With the setting up of the CTC’s Road Improvement Association, cyclists called for better roads ten years before the famous London to Brighton motorcar demonstration.

When these 30 motorcars chugged-chugged away from Charing Cross in London, they were accompanied by 10,000 cheering cyclists.

The reason for the run was to celebrate the overhauling of the Locomotive Act 1865. This was infamous ‘Red Flag Act’ which had set speed limits of 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in towns: and with a man walking ahead warning locals by flapping a red flag. The Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act of 1878 asserted that the motorised vehicles must stop upon sight of a horse. Bicycle builder, motorcar enthusiast and fraudster Harry J Lawson had applied pressure on the Government for a repeal of the Red Flag Act and this duly came with the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896. Motorcars were now defined as light locomotives and subject to the higher 14 mph speed limit.

This speed limit was easily breeched by almost all early motorcars and the first ‘automobilists’ thought the law an ass. Calls for no-speed-limits whatsoever were made from the earliest days of motoring, and have never gone away.

Ten years after the London to Brighton ‘Emancipation Run’, motorcars were easily capable of driving at almost three times the speed limit and many did so. Some local authorities clamped down hard on these ‘motor scorchers’ (usually the same local authorities who had clamped down on the original scorchers, cyclists) but most did precious little. Why? MPs, Lords, Justices of the Peace, chief police constables and other scions of society were among the first to take to motoring. The landed classes believed everything belonged to them, and this was the start of some motorists believing “they owned the road.”

By 1907, two years before the creation of the Road Fund, most motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind (this wasn’t to happen until the 1930s), motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.


A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:

The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.

Forty years later, J.S. Dean, the journalist and head of the Pedestrians’ Association, wrote a polemic calling for an end to “road slaughter” and an end to the view that highways were made for the exclusive use of motorcars:

“The private driver is… most strongly influenced by the sense of ownership of his car, and, as he often believes, of the road as well. It is “his” car to do with as he pleases, and, as he often believes, it is “his” road too, and the other road-users are merely intruders who are there at their own peril.

“This belief (it is of interest to note) has its origin in the vicious and anti-social proposition, embodied for a time in the Road Fund and since sustained by the motor and road propagandists, that the motorists have a right to demand that the motor taxes should be devoted exclusively to the construction and “improvement” of roads, i.e. as experience has shown, to the construction and “improvement” of roads with special or exclusive reference to the convenience of the drivers and with a general disregard of the convenience and safety of the other road-users. Of course, one might as well say that the drink taxes ought to be devoted to the construction and improvement of public houses or the duties on cosmetics to the establishment of beauty parlours.”

‘Murder Most Foul A study of the road deaths problem’ was – and still is – a withering attack on ‘victim blaming’, the expectation that vulnerable road users should assume more responsibility for their safety than those who posed the harm. It’s clicky-flicky below and well worth a read.