Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Cycling scapegoats

Evidently taking its cue from the Daily Mail school of journalism, the BBC's Inside Out (London) broadcast a piece on red-light jumping cyclists in the city last night. As any journalist writing an ''Opinion''* article in the Mail will know, the best way to kick things off is to appeal to prejudices with the all-time classic cycling cliché: the lycra lout. These are the opening words of Matthew Wright's presentation:

''I think we're all familiar with the capital's lycra louts, that breed of cyclist that bombs about the street, flouting the Highway Code, missing pedestrians by a whisker and giving the vast majority of sensible riders a bad name. Well, thanks to pressure from those who've borne the brunt of bad riding, councils and the Met police are starting to clamp down on these two-wheel transgressors....''

Well, so much for challenging stereotypes, eh? The rest of the piece showed lots of cycling clips, many perfectly law-abiding cyclists and the odd dangerous and illegal manoeuvre. And what do you know? None of the transgressors filmed were wearing lycra. That wasn't the point though, was it? I don't know how many hours the film crew spent trying to nail a shot of a lycra wearing cyclist breaking the law or putting pedestrians in danger, but they didn't manage to film a single one doing it. (They did admittedly manage to get one fellow in lycra being pulled for an infraction but missed the actual offence.) But though the film failed to nail any of these two-wheeled lycra lout transgressors, the stereotyping remained unchallenged and, if anything, was reinforced.

Now, I'm not going to defend red-light jumping. But having twice been alarmed yesterday by the sudden acceleration of a car behind me making a dash through a ''London green,'' while I was already slowing for the red light, I will argue for a sense of perspective. Which is more dangerous, a cyclist weighing under 100kg travelling at 15mph or a motor vehicle accelerating through a red light? This is not a particularly difficult question.

What I find most unsettling about this picking on sound-bite scapegoats is that it diverts attention away from the real dangers on the road. Focusing on the cyclist blinds us to where the dangers actually are - and this is why I use the word ''scapegoat.'' Drivers see the hi-viz motes but not the beam in their own eyes.

And as an illustration of that selective blindness, here's a still from the programme. Yes, before a bevy of bobbies, we can all see the cyclist red-light jumping. But unremarked and uncriticised in the programme, what's that behind the cyclist? Oh, they didn't notice the big blue thing in the background. Because they were busy concentrating on cyclists. Perspective, please!
*''Opinion'' here is used by the press to evade censure. ''It's not a reflection of our editorial policy, the views expressed are those of the commissioned author.'' Right, that went well, let's commission another piece....


Deptford dame said...

Very well said. There are idiots out there in command of many modes of travel - from double decker buses to a pair of feet and everything in between - but reinforcing stereotypes does nothing to address the real issues. Just suppose this had been a programme about women drivers. 'Look at that woman driver making a dangerous manoeuvre...ergo all women are bad drivers!'

John said...

Did you read this article in the Evening Standard?


Westminster were hit with a Freedom of Information Act request to explain how the leader of the council came up with the idea that cyclists were 'always' running over little ladies. Unfortunately for them they weren't able to substantiate their claim!

Marmoset said...

Thanks for the link, John. I hadn't seen the article. I couldn't help laughing at this quote:

We're always getting little old ladies who are knocked down and abused by a cyclist, who leave them on the ground as they ride away.

If this cyclist is so hell-bent on knocking down all the old ladies of Westminster, surely they should concentrate on catching him.