Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Changing Times - "War on Britain's Roads"

This time last year, I didn't think I'd be praising a Murdoch newspaper, or Transport for London. I also didn't think I'd be lambasting the BBC.

The Times's excellent Cities fit for Cycling campaign rolls on, with added poignancy this week with the start of the trial of the truck driver accused of seriously injuring Times journalist Mary Bowers. This crash was the trigger for the campaign.

Meanwhile, Transport for London's latest plans for the Bow roundabout "genuinely impresssed" the Cyclists in the City blog.

Not so impressed with the BBC's "War on Britain's Roads" documentary. This has attracted widespread opprobrium, from people ranging from Ian Austin MP, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, who branded it “stupid, sensationalist, simplistic, irresponsible nonsense”, Telegraph motoring journalist Chris Knapman, British Cycling, Chris Boardman, and AA head Edmund King . In fact, to call this a documentary is stretching the definition of the word beyond its elastic limit. It's a sloppy, irresponsible piece of journalism unworthy of the Daily Mail at its most cyclophobic, let alone the BBC. A lot of the footage is lifted straight from YouTube. In that sense it's a bit like a piece of GCSE media studies coursework - but no A*. Must do better. The passage about red-light-jumping cyclists merges straight into the bit about cyclist crashes, victim-blaming by implication. And no statistics to set the record straight. Nothing from the Highway Code either, to tell the talking-head cabdriver or the viewers how much room to leave a cyclist when overtaking, or why cyclists 'take the lane'. Then a six-year-old film of an alleycat race. No footage of illegal car racing on roads, of course, as if that would ever happen.
The fact is there is no war on Britain's roads. A war is an armed conflict where both sides go out to harm each other. Deliberate attacks with a motor vehicle are quite rare, and with a cycle, pretty much unheard of (you're more likely to injure yourself than someone else unless you know what you're doing). While aggression and dangerous driving are undoubtedly a problem, cyclist collisions are not usually caused by the extremes of recklessness on the part of either 'mad' drivers or cyclists that the film tries to portray. The more prosaic truth is it's mainly ordinary motorists, distracted by mobile phones, driving a little too fast for conditions, not looking or looking but not seeing, lacking in the skill to expect the unexpected or to anticipate what's going on in front of or around them. Unskilled cycling plays a part, but much more it's crap cycle infrastructure, which fails to protect cyclists from harm and demands an extremely high degree of skill and vigilance on the part of the rider. If the film does one thing well, albeit unintentionally, it is to illustrate how important segregated lanes are. No coincidence that a significant amount of the footage seemed to have the Cycle Superhighway blue lanes in - which tells you all you need to know about Boris's paint-and-PR scheme.

In the BBC's recent high-profile disasters connected with journalism on the Savile affair, no-one died. I predict that people will die as a result of this film, which encourages people already leaning that way to view cyclists as irresponsible, selfish and slightly unhinged. Of course, the programme won't appear as a 'cause of death' on any coroner's report, but it will add to the fog of misinformation, victim-blame and demonisation of cyclists, which feeds into animosity and a lack of tolerance and consideration, that ultimately leads to fatalities. I wonder how the film-makers sleep at night. Maybe the BBC should take a few lessons in journalistic ethics from News International.


  1. The program WASN'T about the dangers faced and how they can be dealt with. WHY HAS NO-ONE UNDERSTOOD THIS YET? It's not about who was right or wrong or drove too close to who. It was about the clash of opinions generated by our confrontational road system. I didn't understand at first why the taxi driver and camera geek were both being exaggeratedly presented as flawed personalities. I didn't understand why the courier footage was shown. Until the reactions of ALL the commentators to that footage showed us they ALL reacted to it in exactly the same way. In one fell swoop the 2 'sides' became as one. The last bit with the old taxi driver telling us about the loss of his grandson sealed it. It was about the underlying humanity of us all that is lost when road conflict intervenes.

  2. @crapbournemouthcyclist - that is a very interesting comment. I rather fear your Shakespearean interpretation might be lost on the majority of viewers and it was not the impression I can away with, or indeed the impression of those who criticized the programme. However I cannot claim to be unbiased. It would be fascinating to hear what 'ordinary' members of the public (read motorists) thought after seeing it.

    1. All of the criticism of this program comes from people expecting it to be about cycling safety and what can be done about it. I agree we desperately need more about this both in the printed and video media about this matter but it’s unfair to criticise the program for not being something it didn’t set out to be.