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Advertising watchdog’s helmet ruling threatens the promotion of normal cycling

Roger Geffen's picture
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CTC, the national cycling charity, has voiced concern over a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which could prevent future adverts from showing cyclists without helmets on TV.
The image that proved controversial to the ASA
The image that proved controversial to the ASA

In response to complaints against a TV advert produced by Cycling Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Government, the ASA ruled that all future television advertising featuring cyclists must only show cyclists wearing helmets. 

The ASA also ruled that the cyclist's position on the road in the advert was unsafe. CTC believes this is at odds with UK-wide national standards for cycle training, which CTC was instrumental in developing, and which are now backed by the UK and Scottish Governments.

The ASA has therefore told Cycling Scotland that any future ads featuring cyclists should be shown wearing helmets and placed in ‘the most suitable cycling position’, which the ASA believes is towards the side of the road.

CTC is deeply concerned at the effect such a ruling could have on the future popularity of cycling, by increasing public fears that cycling is more 'dangerous' than it really is.  You are in fact less likely to be killed in a mile of cycling than a mile of walking (DfT Reported Road Casualties Great Britain, table RAS30070).

UPDATE: The ASA has withdrawn its ruling pending an Independent Review, which has been requested by Cycling Scotland. The decision to withdraw the ruling was made by the ASA Chief Executive, "in light of a potential flaw in our ruling", suggesting that this is an unusual step. CTC will continue to support Cycling Scotland through the appeal process and aim to have both aspects of the ruling - road positioning and helmets - are withdrawn.

The decision to withdraw was made by the ASA Chief Executive in light of a potential flaw in our ruling.

ASA statement

The UK's All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group has also voiced its concerns in a letter to the ASA, sent by its co-chairs Julian Huppert MP and Ian Austin MP.

CTC has offered support for Cycling Scotland in seeking to appeal against the ruling and will investigate what action individuals can take to add their support. By way of immediate responses, an online petition has been set up, and CTC invites you to submit clips of other adverts which could now be banned under ASA's ruling.

The ASA’s ill-advised decision shows a misunderstanding of common cycle safety issues and risks undermining the promotion of cycling as a safe and normal activity.

Gordon Seabright
CTC Chief Executive and Cycling Scotland Board Member

The latest data on cycle helmet use across Britain suggests that under a third of people wear helmets. In the Netherlands, where over a quarter of all trips are made by cycle, cycle safety is far better than in Britain, while helmet use for day-to-day cycling trips is almost non-existent.

Chief Executive Gordon Seabright, who is also a board member of Cycling Scotland, said: “The ASA’s ill-advised decision shows a misunderstanding of common cycle safety issues and risks undermining the promotion of cycling as a safe and normal activity.”

Dr Jennifer Mindell, Clinical Senior Lecturer at UCL, said: “I don’t know why cycling has a reputation for being so risky. The risks are lower in general for cyclists than for pedestrians.  Males aged 17-20 are at substantially higher risk when driving than when cycling.”

The 'Nice Way Code' was a £425k multi-channel cycling awareness advertising campaign that ran in Scotland during 2013, funded by the Scottish Government and run by Cycling Scotland. One of the advertisements, called 'See Cyclist, Think Horse', attempted to reinforce the message that drivers should give as much room as they would to a horse rider when overtaking a cyclist. It was this advertisement that was declared by the ASA to be in breach of its code. The advertisement can be seen here:

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toothpuller's picture

Another silly decision with a negative effect on cyclists...

As the ASA will not review a decision unless one of the parties involved complains, I hope that Cycling Scotland will appeal!

Will you be running a campaign to contact the ASA with details of how to overtake in accordance with the Highway Code? I believe the ruling will just reinforce drivers views that we should be in the gutter/off the road.

Bluesberry's picture

How, where and to whom should I email my disapproval of this ruling, a ruling I believe will harm leisure cycling.

Chris Peck's picture

Thanks. We're looking at what people can usefully do - watch this space.

stevelongworth's picture
burtthebike's picture

Just sent the email below to enquiries@asa.org.uk

Dear Sir,

I note that ASA are reviewing the decision about the advertisement promoting safer driving, but only reviewing a specific section of that decision, the position of the cyclist.

"The ASA has withdrawn its formal ruling against a Cycling Scotland ad pending the outcome of an Independent Review. That followed a request from Cycling Scotland, in which it argued that the ASA’s criticism of the positioning of the cyclist was incorrect."

The section of the ruling about "safety" equipment, including a cycle helmet therefore does not appear to be under review. As you are no doubt now aware, there is no law to enforce cycle helmet wearing, and unlikely to be so, as all the reliable evidence from countries which have such laws show that they do not improve the safety of cyclists. All the claims made by helmet proponents should be treated with extreme caution as most, if not all such claims have proven false. The web site cyclehelmets.org contains as much research about the issue as is publicly available, and I suggest that this evidence be reviewed and that the section of your decision about safety equipment and cycle helmets in particular, be reviewed also.

Can I point out that your web page dealing with complaints about ASA does not have an email address to submit such complaints, and I had to ring up to get it. In case you're wondering, that's a complaint as well.

I also wish to submit a request for information about the original complaints about the advertisement. I note that you are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but that "We name complainants who have an interest". If any of the complainants were pressure groups promoting helmets, or people from those groups, they clearly have an interest and should be named under your own rules. Therefore I would be grateful if you could give me the names of those individuals and/or groups which made the original complaints about the advertisement.

MTWoods's picture

Obviously no one in the ASA cycles otherwise they would understand the concept of taking ownership of the lane. Road positioning that requires drivers to to think before overtaking rather than just bushing past keeps one safe on the road.

I read many of the comments posted on the BBC web site and many, if not all of them missed the point that a helmet does not stop a cyclist from being involved in a road incident. A helmet doesn't even protect the body from injury, it only reduces the severity of damage to ones head once the incident has taken place.

The best way to avoid being involved in an road incident is to be seen i.e. cycle in the drivers line of vision (out of the gutter), wear HiVis and use good lights.

The fact that the ASA has withdrawn their ruling shows they have failed to understand the issues and investigate to ensure the put the correct message out.

Galaxyman's picture

I tried to watch the advertisement using the link above and a message appeared saying it wasn't available in my country. Has Scotland already become an independent country? It's about time drivers started complying with the highway code and giving cyclists enough room when they pass.

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