For me, the most troubling aspect of the BBC’s much-discussed programme last week was its attempt to portray cyclists and drivers as two seemingly equal parties, ‘battling’ for supremacy on the roads. The voiceover intoned, right at the start – above aggressive music and swearing – that
The battle between two wheels and four has never been so intense.
Footage of outright dangerous driving (one clip shows a van with trailer passing within inches of a cyclist, at speed) was accompanied by the narrator informing us that
with the arrival of the helmet cam, cyclists have found a way of highlighting what they see as the bad behaviour of motorists. [my emphasis]
As if this was merely a problem of perception; cyclists only interpret motorists as dangerous. The ‘battle’, in other words, due mostly to lack of compromise, and misunderstanding.
This failure to take the perspective of people on bicycles seriously was exhibited later in the programme, when, as footage of trucks and buses passing within inches of cyclists in cycle lanes appears on the screen, we are told that ‘cyclists feel under threat, even when in the cycle lane’ – and that they were consequently ‘taking control of the road, even if it means annoying other roads users’. This is hardly the most helpful way to frame the issue, to put it mildly.
Worse than this, the programme went out of its way to present both parties as equally responsible and culpable for the hostility, injuries and deaths that occur. The programme makers evidently searched desperately for a balance that doesn’t exist in reality. While there was plenty of footage of bad driving, they evidently had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find examples of equivalent behaviour from cyclists.
Principally, of course, this involved the well-documented abuse of alley cat footage, and its presentation as something cyclists get up to regularly, rather than a handful of messengers having been egged on by an American offering them the incentive of a cash prize. The only possible motive for the inclusion of this footage – alongside the absence of footage of people behind the wheels of motor cars acting far more dangerously, of which there is plenty out there on the internet – can only possibly have been to ‘even up’ the culpability of cyclists and drivers.
The other attempts to even up the tally were quite laughable. A taxi driver unburdened a series of anecdotes, telling us that ‘many cyclists take diabolical liberties’, before inviting us to ‘look at this wally’ – a wally unfortunately cycling quite legally on a marked shared use pavement.
Not content with this, the taxi driver is then shown pointing out a cyclist going down a street where, he alleges, cyclists aren’t allowed to cycle.
The only trouble is… this isn’t true at all.
The distinctive Smith & Sons umbrella shop at the corner of New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue in Bloomsbury, visible behind the taxi driver’s wagging finger. It’s perfectly legal to cycle south onto Shaftesbury Avenue. The taxi driver is talking out his arse.
I would say that it is extraordinary that this guff made it into the finished programme, but the makers were plainly on the hunt for material that would ‘prove’ that cyclists are just as bad as drivers, and any old tat – even rubbish from taxi drivers – would do. Was the taxi driver encouraged just to point at people on bikes and say they were doing something wrong? It seems so. Lazy, contrived, and irresponsible.
We then have the driver of a cement truck, travelling into Parliament Square, identifying that a cyclist ahead of him is listening to music, stating that the attitude of the cyclist must be
‘I’m riding my bike, and everyone else better beware’
Well, yes! As the driver of a cement truck in central London, an area full of tourists, other pedestrians, and cyclists, you certainly should be aware of cyclists. It might make your job more difficult, but you are the one posing the danger. Cycling with headphones might be unwise, but it is not illegal, and the responsibility must lie with the truck driver to exercise caution. Yet the way the footage was presented, the cyclist was framed as being unconscionably reckless.
This segued into a series of clips of cyclists jumping red lights; a practise which is, of course, illegal, and which can be dangerous. However, I didn’t see any particular danger being posed to anyone in this sequence. It’s selfish, dangerous and rude to cut close to pedestrians when they are crossing, but in these clips the people on bikes were trundling. The reaction to their behaviour struck me as slightly hysterical. (Interestingly, one of the red light jumpers was a young man attempting to escape from a lunatic taxi driver, who was subsequently let on his way without admonishment by the police officer, while the cyclist was advised to use… a whistle).
No sooner had this sequence finished than we were given one of the few statistics in the programme; the number of cyclists’ deaths this year. This was uncomfortable timing, because it created the clear impression that cyclists’ own law-breaking and irresponsibility was a prime factor in that tally, when – in reality – quite the opposite is true.
Indeed, the near-total absence of facts or statistics in the programme underlined all the other serious failings of editorial balance. What happens when a motor vehicle and a bicycle are involved in a collision, for instance?
2664 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in these kinds of collisions last year; just 32 vehicle occupants were killed or seriously injured. (For clarity, no vehicle occupants were killed. All those 32 were serious injuries.) I doubt these injuries suffered by vehicle occupants were as a direct result of being hit by a bicycle; most likely they have were suffered as a result of colliding with street furniture, or other vehicles, during or after the collision.
The relative degree of risk in these collisions is also worth illustrating.
At the right hand side, we can see that a staggering 32.3% of cyclist/HGV collisions result in death or serious injury for cyclists, and that 0% of these collisions result in death or serious injury for the HGV occupant. The picture is scarcely better for collisions with vans. 17.4% of these collisions involve death or serious injury for the cyclist; just 0.08% involve death or serious injury for the van occupant. The only slightly anomalous statistic here is the one for bus/coach-cyclist collisions. Four bus or coach occupants were seriously injured last year in collisions with a bicycle. Quite how this occurred, I don’t know; I suspect, again, one incident in which a bus or coach subsequently collided with something else.
What contributed to these collisions?
A slight ‘health warning’ should be attached to these statistics, because they are based on the interpretation of the attending police officer. There may also be other ‘contributing factors’ involved in these collisions; failing to look may or may not have been the prime or sole cause. Nevertheless we can see that a significant factor in collisions between motor vehicles and bicycles is a failure of observation on the part of the driver, particularly for vans and cars – in nearly half of all collisions between these vehicles and bicycles, the driver had failed to look properly. Of course, we can see that cyclists are also (to a lesser extent) failing to look properly. But I would argue that, given the much greater risk posed by motor vehicles (as shown in the graph just above), it is surely deeply worrying that the parties posing the greater risk are less observant.
Why was it not revealed in the BBC’s programme that in fatal collisions between bicycles and HGVs, the driver of the HGV is nearly twice as likely to have failed to have made proper observation? The clip itself, already mentioned, showed a virtuous HGV driver (of which I am sure there are many, of course) pontificating about the faults of cyclists, and a ‘reckless’ cyclist wearing headphones and not observing properly. While the death of Cynthia Barlow’s daughter at the hands of a left-turning HGV featured prominently, there was a complete absence of facts about causality in these kinds of collisions, which account for so many cycling deaths. Real balance doesn’t mean showing one side of a story and then another, or giving a ‘range of opinions’ – it means presenting a story fairly and objectively. The programme singularly failed to do this.
If there really is a ‘war’ on the roads, then only one side can be said to be winning. Indeed, it might just be one of the most one-sided war in history, with one particular set of victims – people not in motor vehicles.
Children are also casualties of this ‘war’.
Particularly children trying to get to and from school.
With all the rhetoric about cyclists increasingly entering into ‘battle’ with motorists, you’d expect the statistics of this war to be turning in their favour. Wrong.
Being in a car in this ‘war’ is getting safer and safer; quite the opposite for being on a bicycle.
Adjusted for distance travelled -
Perhaps a better comparison would be KSIs per unit of time spent travelling, rather than distance, as motor vehicles cover significantly more distance per unit time. Nevertheless this is a useful indicator both of the relative degree of risk for these two modes of transport, and (again) of trends over time.
Interestingly, the mere act of riding a bike appears to be getting safer. The number of single person incidents (with no other vehicle involved) which result in serious injury or death has steadily declined. The same is not true, however, for collisions with motor vehicles, which have been getting more numerous and/or lethal recently (that blue line has continued rising to the 3200 mark in 2011, as you can see in one of the earlier graphs).
And who is responsible? Well, in London at least, where a great proportion of the footage included in the War on Britain’s Roads was filmed, the picture is reasonably clear (although you may have to click to enlarge) –
Over to the left, we see that the primary causes of serious injuries to cyclists are motor vehicles turning right across the path of cyclists; cyclists being hit by vehicles passing too close; and the infamous ‘dooring’ – each accounting for 11% of cyclists’ serious injuries.
Next we have the ‘left hook’, accounting for 10% of cyclists’ serious injuries. Then ‘failure to give way at a junction, or to obey traffic signals’, on the part of motorists, which accounts for, in total, 11% of all cyclists’ serious injuries (6% in direct collisions, 5% from turning into path of cyclists). Drivers crashing into the back of cyclists – that’s 5% of all cyclists’ serious injuries.
We then come to the first examples of cyclists being responsible – single-person accidents (5%) and riding off the pavement into the path of a vehicle (4%). Note, finally, that cyclists failing to give way, or ‘obey junction controls’ (jumping red lights!) accounts for only 3% of cyclists’ serious injuries in Greater London. Three times more cyclists in Greater London, therefore, are injured by motor vehicles jumping lights or failing to give way.
Statistics like this did not make into the BBC’s programme, while comments from the narrator, like this –
Not all cyclists jump red lights. But for some it’s a way of life.
Perhaps the BBC should consider making another documentary. With some facts included next time.