Dr Hutch: The genius of road safety films

Dr Hutch delves into the minds of the creative geniuses who devise road safety films

I can remember a road safety film from long, long ago. As I recall, it used to turn up between Trumpton and Mr Ben when BBC2 used to show a couple of kids’ programmes at a weekday lunchtime. I’d guess I was something like five years old.

This Shakespearean little film featured a film crew making a film. In the scene being shot, a man drove past his niece as she rode her bike, and gave her a cheery wave. In the first take he roared past 20cm away, forcing the niece to grab her hat to stop it blowing away.

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The driver was told to do it again, this time without frightening the girl half to death. “Treat a bicycle like a small car,” the actor playing the director said, in the special tone actors use for delivering messages. “Give it plenty of room.”

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Things have changed. We’ve got ‘cyclists stay back’ stickers, the Advertising Standards Authority banning a road-safety advert because the riders weren’t wearing helmets and were riding more than 50cm from the kerb (a bit of the Highway Code known only to the ASA).

And last month there was the ‘Think!’ video, with lots of cartoons and meat cleavers all climaxing in a lorry driver killing a cyclist with a classic left-hook turn across him. You might have hoped it was aimed at lorry drivers. It was actually aimed at cyclists.

Geniuses at work

I can imagine the meeting where this was concocted. The geniuses sit round a big table. “OK, cycle safety campaign video,” says Genius 1.

“So first up, does anyone here actually ride a bike?”

Genius 4 is alone in putting up her hand.


“Great,” says Genius 1. “Can you go and get me a latte?” Genius 4 leaves.

“So,” continues Genius 1. “Thoughts? How do we see this?”

“Cartoons,” says Genius 2. “Lots of cartoon images. Cyclists always make me laugh when I see them looking enviously at my Audi R6, so I think something in a cartoon would capture the essential humour of cycling.”

“Oooh, yes,” says Genius 3, stroking his beard. “This is about people getting killed, which is a bit of a buzzkill, so I think to emphasise the gravity of the situation we need to make it as funny as we can. Can we have cartoon noises as well? I like cartoon noises.”

“Is people getting killed really that funny?” says Genius 5.

“Ah, sorry. I misspoke. Not people as such, I meant to say cyclists,” says Genius 3. Everyone murmurs in agreement.

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I can imagine the scene a few weeks later, too, when the first edit of the video is finished.

“This is ridiculous,” says Genius 4, the one who’s normally sent for the coffee. “We were commissioned to make a film about the dangers of undertaking lorries at junctions. Here the lorry overtakes and just turns left across the rider, and then we announce it was the rider’s own fault!”

“Does that matter?” says Genius 1. “I mean, he ends up dead either way, and that was the object of the exercise, wasn’t it?

“Not really.”

“I mean, if he hadn’t been there he wouldn’t be dead. If he’d got the bus, or stayed at home, or had saved up enough money to buy a car… If you go cycling, you’ll get killed, and it will be all your fault. I think that’s the take-home.”

Old but gold

The old advert, with the man and his niece was a bit more even-handed. I don’t suppose it made any difference to how much space drivers gave cyclists, but at least it didn’t try to blame the rider.

Of course, if it aired today they’d just use the first take. They’d freeze it on the girl and her hat. And they’d tell you to wear a helmet.