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War on Britain’s roads: myth or reality?

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Ahead of BBC1's documentary 'The War on Britain's Roads', CTC's Roger Geffen previews the programme and urges cyclists to provide feedback. He asks you to listen out for the claim that "reported incidents [..are..] on the rise", and tell us what "incidents" you think they are referring to.
The BBC's 'War on Britain's Roads'
The BBC's 'War on Britain's Roads'

Debate about BBC1’s forthcoming programme 'War on Britain’s roads' has been sparked off several days ahead of its broadcast, thanks to Peter Walker of the Guardian.  He allowed CTC to view the film in advance, and then published our response last Saturday, as well as those of Ian Austin MP (one of the co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group) and Edmund King (President of the AA).

To be fair, the programme is by no means as dreadful as the trailers had led me to expect.  It does at least give the cyclists’ perspective on dangerous driving – as well as the drivers’ perspective on irresponsible cycling – and it includes footage of some shockingly bad driving and blatant driver aggression.  It features a lorry driver and a taxi driver, both of whom start out by expressing some rather disconcerting opinions about cyclists. But neither of them could be dismissed as 'anti-cyclist bigots'. Far from it: we later see their reactions to footage of some truly awful driver behaviour. I’m not going give too much away; however I will say that, as the programme unfolds, their appreciation of the cyclists’ perspective becomes increasingly clear.

Cycling is portrayed solely as an activity for battle-hardened urban white males with helmets and cameras.  This is bound to put people off cycling – particularly women – or indeed allowing their children to cycle.

The programme’s best bits are the clips of an interview with Cynthia Barlow, someone I know well. Cynthia’s daughter was killed by a lorry while cycling to work. She gives a truly inspirational account of the actions she then took to help prevent similar deaths in future.

I will say more about Cynthia in a follow-up blog, once the programme has been broadcast. I will also wait until you’ve seen it before discussing some of the other problematic features of the programme, and suggest what you can do about it.

For now though, I’ll restrict my comments to two aspects of the programme that concern me.

An all-male 'war'

The first is that cycling is portrayed solely as an activity for battle-hardened urban white males – mostly young men – with helmets and cameras.  Cynthia is the only woman we meet in the whole programme. And her story is about the death of her daughter while cycling – she is just about the only other female even mentioned.

This is bound to put people off giving cycling a try – particularly women – or indeed allowing their children to cycle.  That really doesn't help CTC's and other organisations’ efforts to promote cycling as a safe, healthy, enjoyable and aspirational activity, which most people can do in their normal clothes.

We met the programme-makers almost a year ago, and were concerned that they seemed to want to present an image of a conflict that was escalating as cycle use increased. So I sent them CTC's 'Safety in numbers' evidence, showing that cycling is safer in places with high cycle use.  I also told them about the evidence that places with higher cycle use have a greater proportion of cycling trips being made by women.

We also told them about everything that CTC and other organisations are doing to boost cycle use among groups which are under-represented in cycling, e.g. women, teenage girls (including those from ethnic minority groups), health patients, people with disabilities and others from disadvantaged groups and communities.

Yet the programme-makers chose to ignore this 'good-news story', and have instead decided to portray an escalating 'war', whose combatants - on both sides - are all male.

Us and them: pandering to the stereotypes

That takes me onto my second concern: presenting cyclists and drivers as warring tribes. That’s pretty paradoxical.  Figures from the Government’s National Travel Survey (NTS) show that 83% of 'cyclists' (as defined by the NTS) live in households with access to a car or van – and this is actually just above the GB population average of 82%.  94% of CTC members have driving licences, while 18% of AA members say they cycle regularly. If there is a 'war' between cyclists and motorists, then we must surely be at war with ourselves!

The AA’s President Edmund King, himself a cyclist, has warned strongly against creating an 'us and them' mentality. Irresponsible cyclists do exist, as do irresponsible drivers – and CTC does not condone the former group any more than the AA would condone the latter.  I’ve lost count of how many media interviews I’ve done with Edmund and other motoring group representatives, where the interviewer has tried unsuccessfully to stir up a 'cyclists v motorists' argument.

We are invariably at one with the motoring groups in saying that all road users – drivers and cyclists alike – should respect the rules of the road and the safety of other road users.  We also agree that the emphasis must be on promoting responsible behaviour, rather than hyping up conflict.  Although some cyclists do vent road-rage at drivers, and some drivers do express some deeply irrational cyclist hatred, the idea that this is normal is also a pure media myth.  In a recent public opinion survey, just 10% of respondents agreed with the statement that 'cyclists are a nuisance'.  Levels of cyclist hatred are greatly exaggerated by the media, as are the ideas that drivers all hate 20 mph speed limits and speed cameras (in fact, support for these measures is 72% and 75% respectively).

But instead of giving CTC space to say this, they chose instead to round off the programme with a lengthy clip of some cycle couriers taking part in an utterly reckless 'alley-cat' race.  What they don’t say is that this footage is taken from a video which was sold commercially. It is no more indicative of how most cyclists behave, than boy-racing in housing estates or 150 mph races on the M25 are typical of most drivers. Yet for anyone living in rural England – whose impressions of life in London and other cities may be based mainly on media coverage rather than personal experience – it reinforces the idea that cyclists are uncontrollable criminals, and the law shouldn't show any of them any mercy. As a final impression left by the film, this clip is deeply unhelpful, and Ian Austin MP was absolutely right to criticise it in the strongest terms.

Please listen carefully and be ready to respond

By now, you may be wondering if you want to see it, or if it will simply make you too angry!  I would urge you to watch it.  It doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, but it is interesting nonetheless.

In any case, we’ll be asking you to respond afterwards.  It’s better that you do so on the basis of what you’ve seen for yourself, rather than relying on hearsay.

I would particularly ask you to listen out for voice-over commentary, about 12 minutes into the programme. The narrator says,"As our roads become busier every year, the number of reported incidents between cyclists and motorists is on the rise". This detail isn't by any means my most serious concern with the film - you'll doubtless pick up several others which I haven't mentioned!  However, when you hear it, I'd ask you to note what kind of 'incidents' the programme-makers appear to be referring to - and there's a reason why I'm asking this.

Please post your comments on this, or any other aspects of the programme, on the CTC Forum. I'll be writing a second blog, suggesting how you can respond most usefully, once the broadcast has gone out.

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