Lazy, antagonistic rubbish – the BBC’s flagship news programme tackles cycling safety

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.

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!

Sideguards in action - the HGV that killed YIng Tao at Bank junction last year

The HGV that killed Ying Tao at Bank junction last year – sideguards (and mirrors – see below) in action.

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.

It really isn't very difficult to spot HGV drivers on the phone in London. I snapped this chap as I was cycling on CS6 on St George's Road.

It really isn’t very difficult to spot HGV drivers on the phone in London. I snapped this chap as I was cycling on CS6 on St George’s Road.

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.

A structural approach to reducing the danger posed by HGVs to people cycling. Built this year. In London.

A structural approach to reducing the danger posed by HGVs to people cycling. Built this year. In London.

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.

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32 Responses to Lazy, antagonistic rubbish – the BBC’s flagship news programme tackles cycling safety

  1. OldGreyBeard says:

    Why on earth would anyone think that HGVs and bikes can share the same space? Most HGV drivers can’t want to kill someone with their truck so why don’t they support infrastructure that designs out the risk?

  2. Richard Keatinge says:

    Worth a formal complaint to the BBC? This really was particularly bad.

  3. Simon Still says:

    The surprising thing is that John Humphries doesn’t manage better – (when he was based in W12 at least) he rode a bike to work to work each day.

    • david Cohen says:

      Q: Does riding a bike always equate to the rider being ‘onside’ or fully grasping the bigger picture?

      Or is it that the BBC have got sucked into this and they (try to) see themselves as being ‘impartial’ (which they clearly are not doing a good job on?

  4. Andrew L says:

    Can you write to them and ask them to read out your comments on tomorrow’s show as balance?

  5. Actually, the SWOV in the Netherlands said that it is inherently dangerous to have trucks that big anywhere around cyclists, even more than 1.5 metres way with a kerbed/curbed median (hooray for Canada and the UK, two countries divided by a common language. I have adopted motorway into my normal vocab though). It’s just too big to be worth the risk. And because you could pretty easily move the cargo onto vehicles for the most part 3.5 tonnes or smaller and sometimes vehicles 7.5 tonnes or smaller, the risk is far better managed. It isn’t even safe for cars to mix with 12 tonne lorries according to the SWOV. The truck drivers are more useful shipping cargo on lorries on motorways and autowegen using exits that lead to distribution centres shortly off the motorway rather than directly to the destination.

    But I do agree that outgroups are useless. Nobody complains about “grandparents” as a whole. They complain about those who put riddles in their wills. People don’t usually complain about pedestrians as a whole nor do they usually complain about drivers as a whole. They target drunk drivers (I suggest taking away their license for a while and if they get it back after paying a large fine they need an alcolock in their car), or they target distracted pedestrians. Look at the vehicles they are using and see how to improve the road based on the way that the vehicles function and how the human behaves. This is what Sustainable Safety calls for. I suggest Mark that you do a detailed post about all of the functions of Sustainable Safety and how they could be applied in the UK. I did a series on my blog for Edmonton.

    • paulc says:

      the big problem with HGVs is that haulage firms have become too used to multi-drop usage with one HGV dropping off a pallet or two at each shop… they do not like the idea of distribution centres at each town as that would increase costs in both wages and vehicles and property… basically, they’re cheapskates, only interested in profit.

  6. Andrea says:

    For the record, at least seven pedestrians have been killed by HGVs in London in the first four months of 2016 alone; a further three have been killed by buses/coaches

  7. RM says:

    “Why on earth would anyone think that HGVs and bikes can share the same space? ”

    As someone who’s lived somewhere more rural, they kinda can but it’s why I particularly hate the bit-of-paint-on-a-road cycle lanes – they encourage us to go up the inside right in the blind spot. I rarely do it but appreciate in London you may not get far very fast if you don’t.

    A frequent complaint is that cyclists ‘don’t think the rules of the road apply to them’, while those bike lanes seem to encourage us to act differently to other road users. That’s not the fault of cyclists. If I ride outside the narrow bike lanes round here I get abuse, if I ride in them (when there’s no parked cars of course), I have to contend with potholes, drains, vehicles turning left across me and passing within inches.

    Basically when we ride on the road surely we just want to be treated like any other vehicle, and for any bike-specific infrastructure to be segregated?

  8. I didn’t hear the programme but your blog makes for depressing, albeit unsurprising, reading. One small point I want to make is that I am sick of this idea that cyclists can be demonised because some of them sometimes jump red lights. Apart from the fact that cyclists rarely injure themselves or anyone else doing this, so its irrelevant, it is rarely met with the challenge that so do motorists. I live close to a traffic light controlled cross roads which regularly has accidents, as witnessed by bent railings and broken traffic lights and even a fatality last year. Yet, in the last week alone, I have seen 3 instances of drivers going through red lights, not amber, but red lights. In one case I was driving behind a driver who slowed down for the red light and then decided they had enough time to turn quickly left, through red, just before the perpendicular traffic started flowing. On another occasion a driver drove through red while I was waiting to cross the road as a pedestrian with my children. Driving a motor vehicle through a red light is far more likely to cause harm than riding a bike, yet it never seems to be mentioned.

    On a similar note, I was in central London earlier, and saw two motorbikes driving on the pavement!

    • On the issue of jumping red lights, I accept your point that cyclists rarely injure themselves or others. But it’s a massive visual distraction. If you are driving a car, you have to track the cyclist across the junction and make sure he gets across your lane before you reach him. He may have to stop in the middle of the road to wait for traffic going in the other direction so you have to check that as well. You also have to check your mirror to see what’s in the inside lane in case you have to take evasive action. However we cannot demonise either cyclists or motorists for the action of a minority, as you say.

    • Nicholas Poole says:

      I think this is really tricky. I commute by bicycle every day in central London and every single day, without exception, I see a cyclist do something that puts their safety and the safety of other cyclists and road users at risk. It’s not just about jumping red lights – it’s about a particularly aggressive strain of cyclist for whom the city is a game that revolves solely around them. Even if skipping a light may be perfectly safe, it aggravates stress levels, puts motorists on edge and generally reinforces the impression of the selfish cyclist. Of course, this is focusing on the cyclists – every day I also see Addison Lee drivers swerve across 3 lanes or brake with no warning, HGV having to swerve into the opposite lane to clear a tight turning, moped riders weaving in and out of traffic, drivers opening doors into traffic without looking – all while contending with some of the worst road surface I’ve seen in a civilised nation. As this article points out – it’s not ‘us and them’ it’s all of us – road users trying to get to work on time in a stressful environment. It just means that everyone needs to behave with respect – even if you’re all lycra-d up and keen to try out your new carbon road bike!

      • I agree. Red light jumping by cyclists is an emotive issue. I’m just surprised that we don’t hear the same criticism of red light jumping by motorists, texting by motorists, punishment passes by motorists, speeding etc… And, as my original post makes clear, I am both a cyclist and a motorist, as well as, of course, a pedestrian.

        • Joe Parker says:

          RLJ is illegal and almost always dangerous. I haven’t done it for a decade, tut my family or mates if they do it, and feel no sympathy at all for anyone pulled over by Old Bill and fined for doing so.

          There’s never an excuse and if we aren’t going to obey even the most basic traffic laws (my 2yo knows red/green) we shouldn’t be surprised when Johnny Mondeo Man’s opinion hardens against us.

          Yes I *know* drivers regularly do worse but no-one said this was fair.

          • “There’s never an excuse and if we aren’t going to obey even the most basic traffic laws (my 2yo knows red/green) we shouldn’t be surprised when Johnny Mondeo Man’s opinion hardens against us.”

            I don’t jump lights myself, an on a number of occasions my refusal to do so, despite concerns about the driver behind me, has endangered me.

            Jumping the lights can mean you get safely across a junction before the driver behind you has a chance to left-hook you, or race you to a pinch-point. Or, if the lights are changing to red, it can mean you avoid being rear-ended by the driver behind who you can hear accelerating to the lights rather than braking.

            Of course, this is the kind of problem that is solved by proper segregated infrastructure and separate cycle lights.

            But I do disagree that there’s never an excuse. It can be safer than obeying the rules.

      • Simon says:

        What good will cycling “with respect” do? Will is stop people running cyclists over?

  9. Eric D says:

    Listen again at 2:50:56
    “The Road Haulage Association argues there must be penalties for cyclists who ride irresponsibly, and don’t use cycle lanes.”
    Note the pause between “cyclists” and “who ride irresponsibly”.
    It changes the meaning from [the small minority] “who ride irresponsibly”;
    to “cyclists ride irresponsibly” !
    All too often on BBC Radio 4, it is clear that the presenter is reading from a script, with no sense of what the words mean.
    So we get something that sounds like “There must be penalties for cyclists. They ride irresponsibly”
    instead of “There must be penalties, (but only) for cyclists-who-ride-irresponsibly”.

    We don’t actively choose to get in the way, but (even segregated) infrastructure is so intermittent that it is often better just to use the road.

    If they provide cycle lanes that are better for cycling than using the road, then of course we will use the lanes.

  10. Perhaps if the approach taken for air, marine, and rail crashes might just inform the debate an direct the measures to more effectively prevent fatal and serious crashes.

    We need an independent investigation body – a Highways Accident Investigation Branch to mirror the AAIB/RAIB/MAIB and deliver objective non-judgemental reports which list the facts, along with all possible causal factors, and list the lessons that can be learned, in a published (on-line and freely available) form, making additionally appropriate recommendations for changes to infrastructure or vehicles, and the way these are built, operated, or monitored. Those recommendations must then be taken up by the operators/providers or better still by a regulator whose role is to ensure that the imperative of ‘profit’ (in its widest sense) does not subsume the duty to prevent harm from the delivery and operation of infrastructure or vehicles.

    Tellingly over 80% of the HGV-cycle crashes fit a common pattern which the current ‘safety messages’ completely fail to address. The risk of cycling up the nearside played almost no part in the basic mechanism for crashes in 2015. In one case a right turning cyclist approaching ‘give way’ points of a Zebra Crossing and roundabout was rear ended in the outside lane – where she was correctly riding – and the truck was half way around the roundabout before it stopped with the bike jammed under the wheels. In another the truck driver, positioning his truck on the extreme right hand side at a junction, then turned left – with no signal, and he and the cyclist alongside – (turning right, and expecting the truck driver perhaps to do likewise) both set off – again the crash scene pictures show the truck stopped 20-30 metres down the road from the point of impact in a collision which would have been at barely 5mph, after the vehicles had set off. Two of the other crashes involved the truck driver making a full lock left turn from the right hand lane with a nearside lane in which the cyclist was travelling, another a 330 degree ‘hairpin’ left turn (a feature which TfL could easily identify and place a ban on, as happens in a number of Yorkshire towns where roads join on steep hillsides) the final fatality – where the victim’s husband hugged the truck driver after the trial had site hoardings so close to the road edge that the detection system was rendered worthless, with those same hoardings blocking forward visibility at critical points and making it impossible to get a large vehicle around the corner without driving it as close as possible to the hoardings and barriers built out into the road space. Mix in the anarchy of the road surfaces dug-up and patched with no clear markings or signage and you had a position where many of the HGV drivers were already voicing their concerns, and many cyclists (myself for one) were especially nervous about launching across a junction where there was no clearly defined route for the traffic heading in several possible directions, and a paucity signage to offer directions for users. Tellingly here the truck driver stopped almost immediately after the impact but sadly it was too late to prevent the damage that a 9T axle can do on the human body going under it.

    Analysing the detail of that 80% – the cyclists is likely to be in the place of total invisibility (rarely shown on most plots) in the line masked by the A pillar and mirrors. This is the very area that the driver takes the truck into on a full lock left turn, with well under 1 second between seeing what is there and driving through the space (and if the cyclist is small they fail to appear totally as they sit below the cut-off line of the windscreen) The front nearside corner of the truck hits the rear offside corner of the bike, and once down the FRONT wheels start the crushing process rendering sideguards a bit of a sop as a really effective safety measure. It does prompt a key element that many cyclists need to grasp and confidently use. The rearward check – turning your head and actually being aware that a truck driver is pointing their vehicle into your road space, and doing something about that impending danger. It is called the lifesaver when motorcyclists are trained to do it – and the names gives an ample clue about the need to have all road users better aware of what is happening behind as much as what happens in front.

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  12. Paul Hyman says:

    Surprised at this rubbish reporting by the BBC. Thought I’d tuned in to a rubbish local channel by mistake. cyclists made to sound like just nuisances and irresponsible. People who choose a non polluting form of transport irresponsible ? Guess they should all buy diesel cars and be responsible. Time to stop listening to Today

  13. unironedman says:

    I was going to make a comment, but in truth your title says it all. Depressing.

  14. CRGardenJoe says:

    Thoughtful post. We face many of the same attitudes in the U.S.A.:

  15. D. says:

    “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. ” – Errm. I’ve obviously misunderstood the Highway Code, then. I was under the impression that cycle lanes are there to help cyclists, and are not a replacement for the road network. It’s like saying everything would be fine if only HGVs would stick to their crawler lanes on the motorway network.

  16. Tony M says:

    I totally agree with your comments on lazy reporting – I thought this at the time when I first heard the report on radio 4. Is there a way to complain to the BBC – I’m getting sick of the negative approach the majority of the national media seems to take to this issue, and I expect more from the BBC.

  17. Amanda W says:

    This is an excellent piece. I just sent it to the Today programme and encourage others to complain directly to Radio4.

  18. Both, BBC and As easy as .. are missing a crucial point. Why not mention the bull in the china shop?

    Women, though widely known for civilized and low-risk behaviour in traffic, are far more likely to be killed by a lorry than men.

    According to an official study, in Germany the probalitiy of to be killed by an HGV female cyclists : male cyclists is 4:1. In London this relation may be even worse.

    “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.”

    The ones who do are the ones who are killed. And that is the real problem.

  19. Mark Williams says:

    You have some very strange expectations with regards the objectivity, impartiality and veracity of the output of BBC News (albeit much less weird than your beliefs about the raison d’etre of LBC shock-jocks). Back in the days when it was supposed to be a public service news broadcaster, it merely used to be a bit sniffy about any form of transport other than private motoring. Much of that was probably to do with the motor car `allowance’ of its management as a status symbol—and, consequently, not usually overtly malicious. Some of this still exists today in its weather reporters’ obsession with telling everyone about motoring `conditions’ and its news editors’ constant reinforcement of the ideology that everyone should at least aspire to motoring everywhere.

    But since the whole organisation was Huttonised, with the assistance of one Andrew Gilligan (whatever happened to him?), its main purpose is to be as uncritical towards UK government propaganda as possible. My hunch is that this `story’ is mostly about instigating and providing a platform for some radio click-bait aimed at the chattering classes as a distraction tactic in the hope that none of them will notice DFT quietly hijacking the walking and cycling strategy as a means to kick the supreme court’s air pollution ruling into the long grass, or whatever.

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