Top marks to Plain English Campaign: ‘road tax’ & roads funding error deleted

Plain English Campaing 'road tax' error

The other day it was Which? Car magazine; now it’s the Plain English Campaign. Both organisations are sticklers for accuracy yet both are guilty of misleading readers over the use of the phrase ‘road tax’. However, it’s only the Plain English Campaign which admits its error and has done something about it. [UPDATE: Which?Car tweeted to say it will use ‘car tax’ from now on.]

Last week the Plain English Campaign sent out a press release complaining about confusing road signage. There are too many road signs; some of them are conflicting and, taken as whole, they can cause confusion and distract road users, said the release. All well and good; a perfectly sensible and laudable complaint from an organisation that has been “Fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979.”

But the release veered off topic and PEC’s founder cited the name for a tax that hasn’t existed since 1937 and she compounded the error by linking ‘road tax’ with expenditure on roads:

Chrissie Maher, founder of Plain English Campaign says, “No doubt installing these signs creates work for people and businesses, and it’s all well intentioned, but not well thought out. Any public information should be given in a way that can be read, understood and dealt with in a single reading.

“It does seem odd spending money on simply labelling the roads and giving unnecessary and distracting messages, when the road tax we pay is needed to make roads safer.”

To PEC’s immense credit, the error was deleted minutes after receipt of an email pointing out the inaccuracy. In fact, not only was the error removed, but the whole press release. This is a shame: the release was a good one. It just needed half a sentence to be removed. PEC manager Tony Maher agreed: “No problem at all – I will check this off with Chrissie and get it altered for you.”

Clearly, the Plain English Campaign wants to be factually correct, and needs to be as it runs the Honesty Mark:

This declaration guarantees that everything in the document is true. In other words, what you see is what you get.

Here’s the letter I sent to the Plain English Campaign this morning and which had worked its magic within a startlingly refreshing 25 minutes.

I’ve always loved your campaign. It does sterling work.

I agree with your sentiments about road signage but would like to point out that ‘road tax’ has not existed since 1937.

In fact, it was given a death blow ten years previously by a well-known MP quoted by Baroness Thatcher on your website: yes, ‘road tax’ was killed off by Winston Churchill.

In your press release the phrase ‘road tax’ can’t be substituted with ‘car tax’ because of another error. You say ‘road tax’ pays for road safety. Not true. Road safety – and roads – are paid for by general and local taxation.

In November last year I created a campaign to lobby organisations which continue to use ‘road tax’ instead of ‘car tax’ or – to be more accurate – Vehicle Excise Duty.

This seems such a minor point to many people but watch this video and you might begin to see why I, and others, get so hot and bothered about people and organisations who use ‘road tax’.

Cyclists are often verbally and physically abused by motorists who believe roads are paid for by ‘road tax’ and that therefore cyclists have less right to be on roads.

Armed with this information, will you be amending your press release and sending out a retraction to the media sources you originally sent it to? As an organisation priding itself on accuracy I would hope this would be the case.


Carlton Reid