[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,


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.