On Tuesday morning Radio 4’s Today programme trailered You and Yours with a rant that was a masterclass in anti-cycling propaganda. “Should they have insurance like everyone else?” we were asked, and had we seen news coverage of a young child being dragged along after being hit by a cyclist on the pavement. Did we think cyclists ought to take a test before being allowed on the road and were we aware that “cyclist casualties have risen in recent years as the amount of cycling has increased”.
The statement about insurance is deliberately inflammatory and factually incorrect. It is intended to create a Them and Us divide (a little ironic perhaps on a programme call You and Yours. Perhaps it should be changed to You and Yours and Let’s Point at Other People). It’s saying “We are everyone and cyclists are other and different from all of us”. But not everyone has insurance. People who don’t drive or cycle aren’t necessarily insured. Children don’t have insurance. It’s not, in the UK, compulsory to have insurance when you walk out of your front door. Car drivers have to have cover but that is because they are in charge of something that on average weighs 1300kg and can legally travel at speeds in excess of 110kph. That speed and mass combined gives them much greater kinetic energy than a cyclist or pedestrian and consequently the ability to do much more damage far more frequently.
In addition, whilst it is not compulsory for cyclists to have insurance many of them do. It’s quite difficult to get home insurance or any kind of 3rd party cover that doesn’t insure you against an accident on a bike. Insure yourself against someone breaking into your house and stealing all your worldly goods and insurers are so confident you won’t do much damage that they chuck in 3rd party cycling insurance with it. Join British Cycling or the CTC and you’ll be insured. Take part in an organised cycling event and the organisers will have you insured. Contrast that with the estimated 1.2 million uninsured cars on the road in 2013 and you can see that it really is not as simple as cyclists being uninsured and “everyone else” being insured.
The incident with the cyclist hitting a toddler was horrific and should never have happened. But the use of the story here is again inflammatory. Contrast the way that story was used with the reporting of Jeffrey James who crashed his Audi outside a school injuring 9 people, 5 of them children. James had a coughing fit and hit the accelerator rather than the brake. Somehow this resulted in him flipping his Audi onto its roof. The reporting does not condemn him and crucially doesn’t ask why people are in charge of vehicles near schools if something as simple as a coughing fit can cause such carnage. You might be thinking well this was an accident whereas cycling on the pavement is deliberately doing something illegal. In which case you might want to consider the case of Matthew Trvdon in Cardiff, who deliberately used his van as a weapon (though in that case the outgroup is the mentally ill. Motorists again are not targeted as collectively responsible).
As for the test, over 80% of adult cyclists have a driving licence thus they are versed in the Highway Code as much as any other driver ever is. There is bikeability/ cycling proficiency training available but a test isn’t compulsory for the same reason insurance isn’t compulsory – you cannot do as much damage. But the mention of the test is an important rhetorical device because it leads into the question about cycling casualties. By referring to cyclists not taking a test the implication is that they are the ones not trained and therefore the ones more likely to be the root cause of a collision, in contrast with the nice trained, insured driver who was also involved. Citing accidents as if they are part and parcel of problems caused by cyclists puts the responsibility with those cyclists rather than examining what’s actually happening. Logically, if numbers of cyclists goes up, collisions involving cyclists will go up, because there are more of them. You’d get more collisions if you put more drivers on the road too. The stat cited on the You and Yours website that 19,000 cyclists were killed or injured in 2013 is fairly useless without context. Which has gone up by a greater proportion, numbers of cyclists or accidents? Could it be that there is safety in numbers and accidents increase at a slower rate? And who causes these collisions? The fact is that in the majority of collisions involving cyclists and drivers it is the driver who is at fault. Without that context what we have is just more of the same incendiary, poorly researched and unanalysed nonsense.
I’ll confess that I haven’t listened to the entire You and Yours broadcast. I like my blood pressure where it is and I listened to enough to know that no-one was likely to make an effort to counteract the damage done by the advertising for the programme. #YourandYours was trending on Twitter, much of it from incandescent people who happen to travel by bike (see what I did there? Good isn’t it. The BBC don’t have a monopoly on manipulating language to their advantage). I’ve yet to see a response from anyone involved in the programme apologising for using rabble-rousing language against vulnerable road users, but Rajeev Gupta, producer and reporter on the programme, came out with “Wonderful that #youandyours is top trending… Our phone in on cycling hit a nerve with the UK”.
Now, it’s not that hitting a nerve is wrong per se, it’s just that as a goal on its own it’s inadequate. Katie Hopkins frequently hits a nerve, generally by making attacks on vulnerable groups in society who already face prejudice. Her “cockroaches” rant directed at immigrants brought her dangerously close to 1930s European rhetoric and brings me dangerously close to invoking Godwin’s Law. In contrast, when Alan Rusbridger hit a nerve by supporting Edward Snowden he attacked one of the most established and entrenched powers the world has ever seen. It’s easy to hit a nerve when attacking a small nervous mammal and if you’re the the one doing the hitting you take a minimal risk. When going for a bear, whilst it might be sensitive to attack, the consequences for the attacker are rather greater. It’s why people don’t often have the courage to do it.
I suggest that in future, if You and Yours wants to hit a nerve, it picks a better target. How about going for drivers? No. Why not? After all, the majority of them admit to law breaking in one way or another. They’re so keen on speeding they find ways to spot speed cameras and post information about their whereabouts. They kill and maim, often with impunity. Lorry driver Joao Lopes killed twice because his vision was poor and he didn’t wear his glasses to drive, a fact the police admit they failed to investigate first time around. Put “car crashes into kitchen” into an internet search engine and you’re spoiled for choice with stories about drivers who failed to see entire houses and then drove into them. Drivers are so shit at so many things that the richest of them have specialist lawyers to get them out of these situations. Why doesn’t You and Yours examine that?
Sadly I don’t expect journalists on Radio 4 to start this kind of investigating. They are very much from the Hopkins’ school of picking on outgroups because they think those groups will not bite back. It would take a certain amount of bravery to tackle a group that holds more power and to question entrenched attitudes. They should however take care when attacking the small and nervous. As Terry Pratchett was wont to point out, sometimes a small mammal turns out to be a mongoose.