There was an extraordinary report on cycling safety on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (2:49:00 onwards). I say ‘extraordinary’, because it failed to focus on any sensible solutions to the problem, and instead devoted the bulk of the report to the rantings of an HGV driver – therefore, ‘extraordinary’, from an objective perspective. But sadly not that extraordinary at all in the context of the British media’s engagement with this serious issue, which all too often plumps for a wholly inappropriate adversarial take on it, pitting user groups against one another in a transparent attempt to identify blame on side or the other.
From the outset, it was clear the focus was on antagonism, rather than on solutions that are mutually beneficial. Highlighting the proportion of HGVs involved in cycling fatalities in his introduction, Humphrys said
‘Is it time to clamp down on trucks using the capital? Or, do the drivers get a raw deal?’
Or, could it be that we have a crappy road system that pushes HGVs and people cycling into the same space, which, when combined with the poor visibility that many of these vehicles have, is a recipe for collisions which will inevitably be very serious indeed? Is this not a terrible state of affairs for both the drivers of HGVs, and for people cycling? And one best addressed not by attempting to blame individuals, but by attempting to fix the system?
That’s the sort of reporting and investigation you should expect from the BBC’s flagship news programme. That is to say, looking at the problem in a serious way, and examining how to fix it – and talking to the people who are actually coming up with solutions right now.
— Joe Dunckley (@steinsky) April 20, 2016
This is the kind of thing that Transport for London are doing, on the streets of central London, where the BBC is actually located. They are re-building roads and junctions to eliminate conflict between HGVs and people cycling altogether. There’s simply no excuse for not engaging with this – not in 2016.
But instead of that engagement, we got a lazy, simplistic, one-sided and antagonistic report, from Sima Kotecha, about ‘them’ and ‘us’, one that blamed victims, that failed to recognise that even if people make mistakes (and that includes HGV drivers) the outcome shouldn’t be death or serious injury, and that failed to critically examine any kind of solution whatsoever. Here we go.
Kotecha: In London, Mayoral candidates are fighting it out for City Hall. But on the roads, there’s another daily battle. Between lorry drivers, and cyclists.
Oh dear lord, in the second sentence, we’ve already descended to ‘battle’ and ‘war’ language. This isn’t a conflict, certainly not one that anyone wants to engage in.
Driver: He’s being a complete idiot though, isn’t he. Look. He’s just sitting here. It’s just ridiculous. What am I supposed to do mate? I can’t move this 36 foot truck around. It’s a lot easier for you to move that, isn’t it.
Kotecha: Chris Parsonage has been driving lorries and buses around the capital for more than twenty years. Today he’s delivering malt to a brewery in south London, in a truck 8 feet wide, and 11 feet tall. A couple of cyclists whizz past.
Driver: The worst ones are like this guy here, the professional cyclists. They’re the ones that have got to go as fast as they can. A tiny little vehicle like that, and they’re doing 30 mile an hour. They’ve only got to hit one little pothole, and then they’re gone. You can see here in the mirror, he could easily just go, but he’s just being a complete idiot.
Kotecha: Nine cyclists died on London’s roads last year, seven of which involved lorries. All trucks in the capital now have to be fitted with sideguards to protect cyclists from being dragged under their wheels.
Yay, sideguards. How many of the HGVs involved in those fatal collisions already had sideguards? None? All of them? Hooray for investigative reporting!
Kotecha: Several large mirrors must also be installed to give the driver a better view of cyclists and pedestrians.
Are these mirrors stopping fatalities and serious injuries from occurring? How many trucks are entering London without them? Again, no answers. Just a factoid, thrown out there, stripped of any context.
Kotecha: The Road Haulage Association argues there must be penalties for cyclists who ride irresponsibly, and don’t use cycle lanes. Chris Parsonage says, for that to happen, every bike needs to have a registration plate.
Strangely no calls for registration plates for the people on foot who are also being killed and seriously injured in large numbers in HGV collisions in the capital. But at least we get a mention of cycle lanes, albeit from the antagonistic perspective of the haulage lobby.
Driver: Yes, I think they should all have some form of visible identification on them, so when they do jump these lights, and when they do cause accidents, then they can be called in to, err, answer their own questions, rather than just ride off, and never seen again.
Kotecha: Speaking to cyclists, they say that lorry drivers are getting worse.
That’s it! Go on, poke the lorry driver. Stir the pot of antagonism.
Driver: No, I think that’s ridiculous, like, the emphasis is always put on the lorry driver all the time, and, no, you’ve been with me now for a couple of hours, and you’ll see some absolutely ridiculous things that cyclists do. But they’re never held responsible for it, because they just cycle off to wherever they’re going, and nothing can ever be done about it.
Result! ‘I heard cyclists say that you smell’. ‘No way! They smell much worse!’. Public service broadcasting, at its best.
Kotecha: The main mayoral candidates say if they’re elected, they’ll ban lorries from driving in London during rush hour. London Cycling Campaign, which is calling for better conditions for cyclists, says all lorries should have panoramic visibility, so they have no blind spots. It says installing special cameras and kit in all HGVs would be a significant step forward.
Do we get to speak to these campaigners? No, instead we’re going to talk to ‘a cyclist’ who is apparently more than happy to continue engaging in the ‘war’ and antagonism narrative of the report.
Cyclist: It feels as if it’s like a battle for a lot of cyclists.
… Oh good grief…
Cyclist: I understand it in one sense, but I don’t understand the response by battling back, with traffic.
What? How does this work? How does someone on a bike ‘battle back’ against an HGV?
Kotecha: Derren is cycling to work. Helmet, and hi-viz jacket on.
Evidently it’s important to establish to the radio audience that Derren is ‘a good cyclist’ and that therefore his opinions are worth listening to.
Cyclist: I’ve been knocked off a couple of times. But that’s in twenty years of cycling.
Kotecha: What would you say to those lorry drivers who say that you manoeuvre in and out, that you cut across them when they’re turning, so they can’t see you in their blindspot?
I’d say that sounds like a structural problem that can only be resolved by designing the roads in a better way to separate HGVs and people cycling. But I don’t think that’s the kind of response Kotecha is angling for.
Cyclist: It’s really unfortunate we all get painted with the same brush. A lot of us are responsible cyclists. You know, I’m a driver as well, so I know how difficult it is to see cyclists.
By implication, the way to stop deaths and serious injuries is more ‘personal responsibility’ from scofflaw cyclists.
Kotecha: The blame game between the two sides goes on.
Ah, my favourite! Blame game! Which side are you on? Trucks or cyclists? Who will win? Boo! Cheer!
Kotecha: But as lives continue to be lost, and more cyclists hit the roads, attracted by green issues and fitness…
‘Green issues and fitness’. A great insight into the level of engagement there.
Kotecha: … pressure mounts on the Mayoral candidates to make a difference in one of the world’s busiest cities. Here’s Chris Parsonage again.
Driver: If every cyclist was an angel and stuck to the Highway Code, and stuck to their cycle lanes, everything would be perfect, wouldn’t it. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
A charming note to finish on – if only cyclists behaved, everything would be fine, but ‘they’ don’t, so the carnage will continue.
Guess what. It’s entirely unrealistic to expect everyone to be ‘angels’. We’re humans, and we’re fallible – we’ll all make mistakes, and a sizeable minority of us will be dicks, serial lawbreakers, whether we’re on a bike, or behind the wheel of a car or an HGV.
That’s why it’s frankly pointless (as well as utterly tedious) to attempt to apportion blame on one user group or another, because we’re all people. The solution to danger on the streets isn’t some stupid ‘blame game’, trying to find out who is most responsible for the problem, but structural, a top-down approach to the way roads and streets are designed and used, that separates people from danger as much as is possible, and ensures danger is minimised where encounters do have to occur.
That’s the kind of reporting that a public service broadcaster should be engaging in, not the kind of inane drivel the Today programme audience was subjected to this morning. It can and it must do better.