Opinion: BBC Panorama rehashes the cars v bikes clash? Please just make it stop

For too long we've been talking about cycle safety in terms of multiple groups need to share the road, when they're all just people using different things.

Cyclist in the city
(Image credit: piola666 / Getty)

My name is Vern Pitt, I’m the news and features editor of the oldest cycling publication in existence and I’m a driver first, a cyclist second. 

And I am exhausted by this cars v bikes nonsense.

Psychologically, culturally I’m a cyclist. I have been for well over a decade - even further back than that in some ways - but chronologically I’m a driver.

I had a driver's licence for five years before I owned a “proper” road bike and lycra shorts and before I had any interest in the Tour de France I was an avid Formula 1 fan who was going to the British Grand Prix with his dad.

That’s not unusual (well maybe the F1 bit is). Maybe forty years ago in Britain many cyclists were people who rode to work, school and the shops and their weekend riding was an extension of their mode of transport, but now all the adult cyclists I know own a car. Most of them are like me.

That’s why it’s so depressing that the latest BBC Panorama documentary on cycling safety, which has many great moments of often eye-opening reporting in it (especially if you’ve not ridden a bike on British roads recently), feels a need to frame the issue as a clash between two groups. 

In fact, most cyclists, especially those outside the capital where public transport and cycling infrastructure is frequently poorer, are almost always drivers at some point in their average week.

I do understand why this happens. I’ve been a journalist for well over a decade now and I fully understand that portraying any issue as an argument is simply more attractive to a wider audience. We all love to see a good scrap. Plus, the BBC is in constant neurosis about any accusations of bias.

But pitting cyclists against drivers as if they are completely separate groups is a distortion of reality that is in my view exceedingly unhelpful.

There is, in my opinion, an alternative framing available, it’s just less snappy: drivers who haven’t ridden a bike v drivers who have. If you do that I’m convinced you’ll see that the biggest chunk of what separates “drivers” and “cyclists” is their lived experience.

It’s difficult to object to riders in the middle of a lane on a country road when you yourself have come round a corner in that position, and have had to slam on the brakes and dive for the bushes. If that's happened to you you'll know full well that the reaction time afforded you by being in the middle of the lane was crucial to your survival.

Likewise, you will instinctively know that when driving leaving the 1.5 metre gap to a rider is important, as you’ll have felt the unsteadying terror of the suck of wind of a close pass and contemplated what would have happened had you swerved for a pothole; did you tell the kids you love them before you left the house?

There have been efforts to move the collective consciousness in the right direction in recent years, notably the More Than a Cyclist campaign, supported by British Cycling and others.

There’s even a current government campaign called Travel Like You Know Them in part aimed at reminding drivers cyclists are still *gasp* human.

These are good but they're not a big enough shot of mental taurine to stop the bone-deep fatigue I feel seeing the “war on the roads”-style discourse over and over and over again. Please make it stop.

The only way we’re going to get past it is by acknowledging that yes we all have a right to be there and maybe, just maybe, we all need to get along.

That to my mind is a pre-requisite to sorting out all the issues of cycle safety on the road.

After that comes an acknowledgement that driving a car, something that has that ability to do mortal harm to others, is a privilege earned and not a right you are born with, then maybe as a society we’ll get somewhere.

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Having trained as a journalist at Cardiff University I spent eight years working as a business journalist covering everything from social care, to construction to the legal profession and riding my bike at the weekends and evenings. When a friend told me Cycling Weekly was looking for a news editor, I didn't give myself much chance of landing the role, but I did and joined the publication in 2016. Since then I've covered Tours de France, World Championships, hour records, spring classics and races in the Middle East. On top of that, since becoming features editor in 2017 I've also been lucky enough to get myself sent to ride my bike for magazine pieces in Portugal and across the UK. They've all been fun but I have an enduring passion for covering the national track championships. It might not be the most glamorous but it's got a real community feeling to it.