Comment: Is there really a War on Britain’s Roads?

The BBC’s ‘War on Britain’s Roads’, purportedly showing the friction between two and four-wheeled road users, stirred up emotion and anger before it had even been aired on Wednesday night.

It didn’t help that the title looked very much like the issue was going to be over-sensationalised. “From everyday incidents that get out of hand between cyclists and motorists, to stories of near-death experiences and fatal collisions, this timely documentary shows the battle between two wheels and four has never been so intense,” said the accompanying blurb on the BBC website.

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Did it turn out to be, as Ian Austin MP, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, described it: “stupid, sensationalist, simplistic, irresponsible nonsense”?

The programme opened with a shot of Bradley Wiggins, on his way to winning the Olympic time trial in the summer, with the voiceover reminding us that even the flag-bearer of the surge in popularity of cycling in Britain wasn’t beyond being knocked off his bike. Wiggins was hit by a van whilst out on a training ride in November, and spent a night in hospital.

We were then shown footage filmed by Gareth, 24 (web developer) on his helmet-mounted camera. If his edited footage was anything to go by, he is cut up and sworn at with alarming regularity. It has to be said that Gareth wasn’t adverse to a bit of confrontation himself in his quest to maintain his space on the road. In one segment he banged on the side of a cab that he deemed to be passing into his lane. The driver stopped, and berated Gareth using words that assured him of some airtime on BBC after the 9pm watershed.

To give a balanced view, there were also segments with taxi drivers and lorry drivers giving their take on cyclists’ behaviour. In particular, they quite rightly despised those riders who jump red lights and weave dangerously through traffic.

In between the shaky clips of verbal and physical fisticuffs, there was footage of police officers trying to sort out both sides, all the while being on the roads as cyclists themselves. Much of their duty seemed to involve getting people to simply calm down and be nice to each other.

Sure enough, when everyone had calmed down a bit, got off that ribbon of tarmac and sat in the studio, most turned out to be perfectly reasonable human beings. (Although the programme makers obviously asked the cyclists to wear a cycling top and the car drivers to wear ‘normal’ clothes in a clumsy move to reinforce which side of the ‘war’ the speaker belonged to.)

The film made much of its use of head-cam footage shot by ‘real’ cyclists. However, it has come to light that the footage of cycle messengers flouting the rules of the road through London used at the end of the broadcast was actually shot in 2006 by an American film-maker, Lucas Brunelle.

On the Moving Target messenger zine forum, Brunelle was contacted earlier this year by the programme’s maker, Leopard Films, but says that he did not give full consent for the footage to be used. Either way, it was hardly the behaviour of your everyday cyclist in the same way that showing footage of a joyrider cruising at 90mph down the High Street would be representative of the average behaviour of a driver.

The most thought-provoking contribution in the whole film was in stark contrast to the van-side-banging, expletive-fuelled rants of a large portion of the footage. Cynthia Barlow’s daughter was killed whilst cycling after she was hit by a cement lorry in London. “What happened to my daughter was not an accident, it was a preventable tragedy,” she said.

Barlow is now the chair of RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, and has campaigned tirelessly and effectively to improve safety for cyclists, and other road users. This is someone who has coped with a great and unnecessary loss, and come out of it determined to make the roads a safer place for everyone. She bought shares in the cement company that owned the lorry that killed her daughter, and attended its AGM, where she spoke about the dangers posed by its vehicles leading directly to awareness training for drivers and safety measures being installed on their fleet.

What did the programme really tell us? That it doesn’t matter whether you’re a cyclist, taxi driver, lorry driver, bus driver or pedestrian – there are people on the roads who don’t pay attention to other road users regardless of their mode of transport, and that there are some angry people out there. The overwhelming majority of us, though, just want to get where we’re going posing the absolute minimum of danger to ourselves and others. It turned out to be less of a war, and more of a misunderstanding.

“We’re just people, sometimes people on bikes, other times people in cars, often both in the same day,” said Martin Gibbs, British Cycling’s Policy and Legal Affairs Director, in a statement issued before the programme was broadcast.

“We all bear a responsibility for the culture on the roads.”

War on Britain’s Roads: Watch the film on BBC iPlayer (external link)>>

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