How the anti-cycling lobby poisons public discourse


The Guardian is normally free of the usual “Cyclists: Threat or Menace?” nonsense, but on 2009-11-30 it published an article by Edmund King, “Beware the iPod zombie cyclist”. Here’s how it starts:

Beware! There seems to be a new type of cyclist out there – not the Lycra lout but the iPod zombie. I must declare an interest as a keen cyclist, pedestrian, train passenger, driver and, indeed, iPod user. However, like drinking and driving, I don’t think iPods and cycling mix. On my bike, audible warnings are just as important as visual ones. Even if you can see what is in front of you, you have to hear what is behind you as you move out to avoid potholes or raised manhole covers.

Your personal stereo gives you personal music which may affect the way you ride. Research shows that loud, fast music can raise blood pressure and adrenaline, which might just tempt you to take chances.

I suppose most people see zombies as creatures staggering steadily forward towards their goal, undeterred and unharmed by all that is being used to try to stop them. But this new breed of zombie evolving on the roads of Britain is finding its way into road casualty reports.

I normally ignore this kind of prejudicial nonsense, but it was brought to my attention when someone whose opinion I respect—someone who is himself a keen cyclist—appeared to fall for it.

My first instinct was to point out the myriad ways in which the piece is nonsense. But I have to say now that this was a bit of a mistake: I fell into a trap that the writer set for me. Once we find ourselves spending our time debating whether and to what extent cyclists are a bunch of menacing zombies, then we’ve already lost that round of the propaganda war.

Instead, the questions I propose to consider are, what is this opinion piece doing in the Guardian, and what it its agenda? I’ll come back to the zombie question at the end.

Let’s start with the author. Who is Edmund King? Is he a sensible, neutral, commentator whose opinion on whether cyclists are “lycra louts”, “mindless maniacs” or “iPod zombies” is one we ought to take seriously? No, he’s the president of the bloody Automobile Association, that’s who he is. He has a history of writing pro-motorist articles for newspapers, appealing for speed limits not to be reduced (for motorists), for motor vehicles not to be fitted with speed regulators, for Vehicle Excise Duty not to be increased, and so on. He’s a propagandist for the motor car, and no sensible person should read anything he says on the subject without checking their pockets afterwards.

What is the purpose of the article? The clue is in the last sentence I quoted:

But this new breed of zombie evolving on the roads of Britain is finding its way into road casualty reports.

The purpose of the article is to push the impression that cyclists are largely to blame for their own deaths and injuries. It’s not hard to understand why the president of the Automobile Association might be keen to place the blame for cyclist fatalities anywhere but on the motorists he represents.

King also suggests that any government action aimed at reducing the number of injuries and deaths to cyclists, should take the form of campaigns directed at cyclists, rather than laws or enforcement directed at motorists:

The government THINK! campaign has warned of the dangers of pedestrians texting. The time has come for a campaign aimed at iPod users on the road.

Why did King write this article now? There’s a clue in the penultimate paragraph:

With 820 cyclists killed or seriously injured in the three months to June—a 19% rise on the same period last year—we need to do all we can to make cycling safer.

What’s happened is that early in November, the Department for Transport released its Transport Statistics Bulletin for April–June 2009. The most notable figure in the report is that whereas other categories of road user largely saw similar numbers of casualties in 2009 as in 2008, the numbers of cyclists killed or seriously injured in this period was up by 19% on the same period in 2008.

This worrying figure obviously provides ammunition for pro-cycling campaigners in all their on-going battles for better facilities and changes to legislation. One current battle is over strict liability: a number of groups (for example, RoadPeace, the DfT’s Cycling England, CTC) are campaigning for European-style strict liability laws for operators of motor vehicles. Edmund King already spends some of his time campaigning against such a change in the law: for example, you can see him quoted arguing against it in this Sunday Times article.

I’m sure you can see how important it is, when something like the DfT report emerges, for the AA and other anti-cycling campaigners to get their spin in quickly. And in this case, the spin is that cyclists are to blame for the increase in casualties because they are “iPod zombies”.

Writing in the Guardian, a newspaper whose readers might be considered to be less anti-cyclist than most, King has to be somewhat circumspect in how he goes about his demonizing of cyclists, and in the context of a piece clearly labelled as opinion. But in more sympathetic newspapers, the same opinions are reported as if news, with the allegation that cyclists are to blame for their own injuries and deaths made explicitly. For example, the Daily Mail:

The fashion for wearing iPods while cycling has been blamed for a rise in the number of riders being killed or seriously injured. Dubbed the iPod zombies, cyclists who are distracted by thumping tunes blaring in their ears have become the latest menace on Britain’s roads. Road safety campaigners fear the fashion for cyclists to wear earphones is partly responsible for the recent upsurge in injuries and deaths. Edmund King, the president of the AA, called for the Department for Transport to launch a campaign warning cyclists of the risk.

Much the same article appears in the Sunday Times.

Note the phrase “has been blamed” in the Mail piece. The journalist is hoping that you’ll think that the connection between iPod wearing and the casualty figures is something that comes out of the official statistics. But it doesn’t. It’s completely made up. There are no figures available for the number of “iPod zombies”, or even any evidence that they exist at all. As the Sunday Times says, “It is not known how many of these [deaths and injuries] were caused by people listening to music because the DfT and the police do not record the information.” In other words, maybe none of them.

But that doesn’t matter, because the prejudicial echo chamber is happy to repeat the spin. Newspaper headlines, which should says, “Big increase in cyclist deaths and injuries”, become, “Beware, iPod zombie cyclists are on the rise”. And the president of the AA can pose as a “road safety campaigner”.

So does the zombie threat make sense? Of course the argument has a kernel of truth, otherwise it wouldn’t fool anyone: no doubt some iPod-wearing cyclists zone out and pay less attention than they should. (But where’s the evidence, other than King’s say-so? He doesn’t even bother to present an anecdote.) And it’s possible that an audible warning of hazard may prove useful. But really, the case is absurdly overstated. City streets are so noisy with motor vehicles that you can’t depend on your hearing. Some vehicles are silent (for example, other cyclists); others are too quiet to hear against the background noise of traffic; and in any case you can’t tell their intentions from the noises they make. I don’t wear an iPod myself, but I doubt that it would make any measurable difference to my safety if I did. When I was run down by a bus, I heard the bus coming, but I didn’t realise that the driver meant to run me down until it was too late to escape. (Maybe this makes me responsible for my own misfortune, in the opinion of Edmund King?)

And something that’s completely missing from the piece is the fact that motorists, cocooned in their airtight cars, can hear very little at the best of times, and many motorists are listening to their own iPods via their much louder in-car entertainment systems. If it’s fine for motorists to cut themselves off from outside sounds, then why pick on cyclists? Conversely, if it’s bad for cyclists to do so, how much worse for motorists? The answer is that the point is not to construct a rational case, but to reinforce the stereotype of cyclists as reckless scofflaws, so as to deflect attention from the motorists who cause the vast majority of deaths and injuries on the road.

How much of the rest of the “lycra lout” material that we see in the media is also being pushed by well-paid propagandists for the motorist?

Update . I have noticed, in the recent cold weather, a number of cyclists wearing woolly headgear. This covers their ears and impairs their hearing. Do earmuffs and cycling mix? When will we rid the streets of the scourge of the balaclava bandit?