Channel 5 Documentary About Cycling Provokes Backlash




Cyclists: Scourge of the Roads, which airs on Tuesday 9th July at 9:15 pm on Channel 5 creates a hateful, irresponsible and untrue narrative against cyclists that will make all road users less safe in the future.

Peter Walker, a Guardian journalist, who regularly travels by bike, examines the film and finds it a “scaremongering, inaccurate, and a downright irresponsible programme”.

While the programme contains one voice of balanced opinion with knowledge of the facts – PC Mark Hodosn from the West Midlands traffic police – most of the programme is hostile and provocative. Walker looks at it in more detail to find out exactly what it says and why this is potentially so damaging.

The first thing to note is that cyclists are the most vulnerable people on the road, and their safety can often rely on the goodwill of a potentially hostile or distracted stranger in a metal vehicle that can weigh anything from half a tonne to almost 50 tonnes, in the case of some lorries.

How that person feels about cyclists can, although this is difficult to prove conclusively, have a direct effect on how much space they leave a cyclist when, for example, they are overtaking.

This author often travels by bike, and when a car driver leaves you just inches of space when overtaking, it can be extremely unsettling. In some cases, cyclists have died when being knocked off their bike by an overtaking car.

Language of Prejudice and Hatred

Walker notes that the programme is awash with prejudicial terms for cyclists, referring to them as “swarms” and “a plague of locusts coming down the road”. Cyclists are referred to as “this lot”, while three London cab drivers who are entirely negative about cyclists are referred to as “three of the city’s finest”.

The narration refers to the footage that follows as “the battle for Britain’s roads” and a number of further quotes from the narration strengthen the idea that bike users are in some way another group that is outside the mainstream of sensible law-abiding road users.

Here are a few of them:

“Many motorists see cyclists as the scum of the roads – speeding through crossings, riding where they shouldn’t, and generally hogging the roads.”

“For many drivers in the capital, cyclists have become public enemy number one.”

“The pastoral dream – or it was until the cyclists came.”

This kind of narration, a deliberate choice by those making the film, creates a false narrative that there is some kind of war on our streets. And in any case, what war can there be between a cyclist wearing a flimsy helmet at best and a tonne of steel with airbags and seat belts? It also misses the point that in 90% of cases the people riding bikes and driving vehicles are the same people on a different day.

A Cavalier Approach to Facts

From beginning to end, the film is sloppy with factual accuracy. Britain, says the narration, “has gone cycling mad”. While in London and in certain other cities, there has been a rise in the number of journey’s made by bike in recent years, overall in the UK cycling levels of about 2% have stayed the same for decades.

The director and production team also decide to include contributions by Peter Freeman, the celebrity lawyer, who has been dubbed “Mr. Loophole” by the tabloid press, a term he has trademarked. Freeman is a self-publicist who got his nickname through getting celebrity drivers out of jail for speeding offences, often in urban areas, something which is genuinely dangerous to others.

Nevertheless, Freeman says on the programme that “they” – meaning cyclists – “need to be legislated, they need to be controlled, and they need to comply with the laws of the land, in exactly the same we do.”

Absurdly Nasty and Ridiculous

There are a few truly ridiculous parts of the programme, including the accusation that in certain parts of leafy suburbia, cyclists are chucking away their water bottles and defecating in people’s front gardens.

While in another section an irate driver in a huge 4×4 complains that he can’t overtake cyclists on a blind bend because the road is too narrow.

On the surface, this piece of cheap rushed off television claims to be about cycling but in fact, is reflective of a deep sense of anger and alienation that is pervading most of British society at the moment. As a sense of helplessness and rage grips people on a daily basis, it’s always convenient to blame another “outgroup” for the simple fact that much of British society is broken.

A Reality Check

Now, we’ve shot down this irresponsible programme, let’s have a look at some of the facts about cycling and road safety.

Firstly, there is no evidence that people break the law more when they are riding a bike or driving a car. There are not many statistics about how much cyclists break traffic laws, but there is some. One survey of 5 major London junctions fond 16% of cyclists jumped a red light.

But is this always dangerous to others? Sometimes cyclists break traffic laws for their own self-preservation and when cyclists do break the law it is often not especially dangerous. PC Mark Hodson from the West Midlands traffic police told the Guardian that the effect of cyclists breaking road laws is often negligible and most often does not pose a risk to anybody. Out of 1700 people killed on the roads every year in the UK, between 0-2 are hit by bikes.

Cyclists are also rarely self-harmers because of the sense of vulnerability they have on a bike, even if they are breaking traffic laws. In a car, however, a driver often offends with far less concern for safety because they are sitting in a metal box surrounded by airbags.

And when drivers do break the law, it can be lethal. The most common causes of deaths and serious injury from traffic accidents are speeding, a driver being distracted by their mobile phone or driving under the influence of drink or drugs.

In 2017 448 pedestrians were killed on UK roads and of these two involved cyclists.

But why do people and the media go on about how often cyclists break the law? Could it partly be because, it’s a lot more obvious and easier to see than when a motorist is speeding in a 20 miles per hour zone, driving drunk or high or using their mobile behind the wheel?

Editorial Team