I guess many of you will have seen the BBC ‘documentary’ The War on Britain’s road last Wednesday evening. If you didn't don’t worry – most people seemed to be comfortable making comments about how polemic it was before it was broadcast or without actually watching it after it was. Broadly, it showed the two very different sides of commuting (in London) - guys on bikes riding badly and motorist driving badly. Like this comes as a surprise to anybody who has ever driven a car or ridden a bike on the roads (anywhere, but in London particularly).
Gareth, the shows cycling protagonist and helmet camera man (that’s not an insult) came out badly in the edit according to his mates. I can believe this, he might well be a decent guy, but they made him look like a smarmy self-serving geek. His comments about improving people’s driving from the saddle of his bike were cringe worthy.
The day after the TV broadcast, our very own Dr Hutch and Jan Etherington, a journalist and comedy writer, (no I’ve haven’t either) turned up on the BBCR4’s Today programme to discuss the issue. It didn’t sound good from the introductions and then it got worse. First, Etherington, carefully avoiding the use of any journalistic or comedic skills, launched into a ‘they put their Lycra and helmets on and go out to war’ diatribe.
Picture the scene...
Squire: ‘Sire, do away with thine armour I implore thee. I have developed thee a florescent suit of finest paper thin Lycra and helm of pure polystyrene. Surely ample protection from the lumbering lumps of metal speeding toward thee.’
Knight: ‘You mate, are having a laugh, I’ll stick with the steel stuff if it’s all the same to you...
Hutch then trumped Gareth by out smarming him.
Hutch came out with ‘your personality doesn’t switch depending on what mode of transport you’re in’. Well, it does for many people. Contrast behaviour in a queue of cars to a queue of people. Being inside a car gives you a sense of invulnerability. You also feel legitimately entitled to use it - you’ve paid a lot of money for that car, you’ve taxed it, insured it, put fuel in it and if people can’t travel at the same speed as you they should get out of the bloody way. ‘Me and this car are perfectly capable of getting to where I want to go in the time I have allotted and you (bike, scooter, old lady, farm vehicle, truck, road works, fog, anything) have no right to prevent me from achieving my objective. Further, you shall be on the wrong side of my righteous indignation if you do so. Equally, it’s easy to become overly defensive on a bike. Maybe we even look for excuses to blame motorists for things? Maybe we criticise people in cars for doing things that we would happily do ourselves without thinking twice? I’ve caught myself doing that a few times.
Some of the footage in the programme was truly terrifying. The heart wrenching story of the woman whose daughter was killed by a cement lorry and the guy who was very nearly wiped out by a petrol tanker. All caught on CCTV or helmet camera. But despite some notable and useful contributions (above) and fair play to the taxi driver(s) for appearing, it just wasn’t a very good programme. The footage of the 2006 bicycle courier race shown to pole the polarised polemic was wholly in line with the shoddy editorial and production standards the BBC are coming to be well known for. It was unnecessary sensationalism to spice up a crap program. If the program makers had gone outside the capital or made any attempt to show the vast majority of drivers or cyclists – who are often the same people just at different times of the day - it would have been dull rather than simply bad. Mostly road users rub along okay. Unfortunately, when they don’t, it the cyclist that usually comes off worse.
There is no easy, simple solution to the problem. There are a million things that need doing but overarching them all is a cultural change in the attitude by road users, starting with an understanding the public highway is shared space and cars do not have priority. There also needs to be an understanding that personalities do change when you’re in an expensive metal box and that this has an impact on the way one drives.
I came away thinking, as a start, we need much better cycle training in this country and almost certainly a test of some kind – something that is appropriate for current road and traffic conditions. Level 3 Bikeability might be the answer, but there is no public awareness of this and no compulsion. Part of the cultural change has to be cyclists being seen as legitimate road users and if licensing, training, insurance and helmets are necessary as part of this change then we have to be willing to have those discussions.
Richard Smith is a Level 3 B.C Cycling coach and the author of ReCycled. A book with no pictures…