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Dodgy stats lead to usual mass-media nonsense

Yesterday road.cc, and just about every other media outlet you can think of, ran a story about how one in four London guide dog owners said their dogs had been hit by cyclists.

The Evening Standard reported the story with this opening paragraph:

"Cyclists are increasingly smashing into blind Londoners and their guide dogs after mounting the pavement and jumping red lights, a charity warned today."

And many outlets used a comment by Robert Harris, London engagement manager for Guide Dogs. Harris said: “We work incredibly hard to get blind or partially sighted people out of their homes and mobile, so to hear that vision impaired people are anxious and in some cases fearful about going out in London because of irresponsible cyclists is very worrying."

On the face of it, this is terrible stuff. The blind are, rightly, a group for whom everyone has sympathy. Making your way in a world full of text and fast-moving objects when you have little or no sight is extremely hard.

Action for Blind People says two-thirds of registered blind and partially sighted people of working age are not in paid employment, and nearly half of blind and partially sighted people feel ‘moderately’ or ‘completely’ cut off from people and things around them.

So, pressed for time as journalists always are, the bald assertions made by Guide Dogs were reported verbatim. Talk of "irresponsible cyclists" "smashing into" people after "mounting the pavement and jumping red lights" is standard anti-cycling media fare. Easy to bang it out and not question it.

Dodgy survey, dodgy numbers

Over the course of the day, more of the background started to emerge. You might think that Guide Dogs London was acting on a vast number of reports of issues with cyclists. Perhaps they'd polled a significant sample of London's 41,000 blind and partially sighted people to find out what problems they had getting around, and been told by a large number that cyclists were an issue.

Not so. The one in four figure comes from a self-selected online survey and represents just 14 people claiming they or their dogs had been hit by cyclists.

You read that right: 14.

Guide Dogs clearly went looking for ammunition, having already decided to target cyclists.

Here, for example, are a couple of tweets from London Guide Dogs:


Thanks to David Robjant ‏(@bike3isavolvo) for spotting those

That survey has since been taken down, so there's no way of knowing to what extent it used leading questions to get the responses London Guide Dogs were looking for, but those tweets are not the words of impartial researchers.

Expectation bias

The signs of dodgy research were there in Guide Dogs' original announcement of the 'CycleEyes' campaign.

It speaks of a "a noted increase in guide dogs and their owners being hit by a bike or having a near miss."

"Most of these reports," the organisation said, "come directly to Guide Dogs verbally."

In other words, Guide Dogs had nothing but the impressions of its staff that blind people were having more problems with cyclists. It's perfectly feasible that this is something researchers call 'expectation bias'. You become aware of something, and suddenly you start seeing it everywhere.

So, Guide Dogs London set up a survey on Survey Monkey and got results that it presented thus:

"Of the guide dog owners who responded, 42% had been involved in a collision with a cyclist and 76% have had a near miss when cyclists either ride on pavements or skip red lights at pedestrian crossings."

The reaction of one guide dog user I mentioned this to was: "How did they know, they're blind?" Well, quite.

Guide Dogs initially claimed one in four of London's 320 guide dog users had been involved in an incident in which a cyclist hit their dog.

A footnote to the release about Guide Dogs' campaign vilifying cyclists, however, admits:

"Through social media we invited blind and partially sighted to fill in a Survey Monkey. 33 of those who responded were guide dog owners from London, 42% of those have been involved in a collision with a cyclist 76% have had a near miss (defined as where they have narrowly avoided a collision)."

42 percent of 33 is 13.86, which indicates a) it's really stupid to turn such small numbers into percentages even if it does make your wholly useless survey look all sciencey and b) as I mentioned above, this whole campaign is based on just 14 people complaining.

Think about that. London is home to between 8 and 15 million people depending on how you count them and how you define 'London'. You could pick any two random groups of people among that vast population, ask one if it had had problems with the other, and get 14 complaints. Ask Lithuanian redheads if they'd had bad experiences with German shepherd dog owners, and I bet you'd get 14 tales of woe.

Can you imagine the response you'd get if you asked people with "strong views" about, say, immigrants to fill in a survey?

And they're not just complaining about something that happened recently. Guide Dogs does not appear to have set a time scale on its trawl for trouble, so those incidents could have happened any time in the last couple of decades.

By sloshing around its deeply dubious numbers, Guide Dogs was able to get all sorts of people who should know better on board with its anti-cyclist campaign.

Here's Charlie Lloyd from the London Cycling Campaign for example:

 

 

And Lib Dem group leader on the London Assembly - and cyclist - Caroline Pidgeon:

 

Lloyd said: "I don’t know if it was a stitch up or a cock. The absurd casualty stats were quickly withdrawn."

That may be true, but by then it was too late. Stories like the Evening Standard's had been written, and what corrections were made were minimal, and usually at the end of stories.

As for London Cycling Campaign supporting a the campaign, it's hard to say they weren't very naive in failing to see how the story would be told in the mass media.

"Our involvement was based on the fact that there is a real issue with the way some cyclists intimidate pedestrians," Lloyd told me in an email. 

"The other consideration is that many in the Guide Dogs movement wish to block some of the infrastructure that will help make London safer for cycling.

"They have strong opposition to floating bus stops, even though there are thousands of them across the UK where old style footway based cycle routes pass bus stops. We think it is worth while working with blind people to discover the best design for floating bus stops in London."

A common threat

What's deeply troubling about this sorry tale is that Guide Dogs chose to target another group of vulnerable road users instead of taking on the source of risk to all: bad drivers and London's abysmal road system.

Road traffic danger limits everyone's mobility, and its main source is motor vehicles. But Guide Dogs doesn't have the gonads to say that London's awful roads keep partially sighted people from getting out and about, because like everyone in their position they think of traffic as being like weather: it just happens and nothing can be done about it.

Far easier then, to go after cyclists, knowing that the mass media won't question that "irresponsible cyclists" are "smashing into blind Londoners" than to demand London's roads be organised for the convenience of people rather than motor vehicles.

Lazy, lazy campaigning, with the wrong target.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

84 comments

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russwparkin [45 posts] 2 years ago
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classic!

well they raised awareness. but not in a good way.

makes you wonder what other figures they massage

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cat1commuter [1421 posts] 2 years ago
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I think the two biggest problems with the survey are:

1.) It is self selecting. You're more likely to respond to the survey if you have an axe to grind.

2.) How do they know that the people who did fill in the survey are actually guide dog users, and that they only filled in the survey once?

The sample size wouldn't be too bad if it was a proper random sample. eg: If you had the telephone number of every London guide dog user, you could ring up a randomly selected sample of them. Correct use of statistics on the result could also give an estimate of how accurate it is likely to be.

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bikewithnoname [88 posts] 2 years ago
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Got to love statistics!

That said it wouldn't hurt to knock it out of the big ring when we're in the vicinity of Moorfields Eye Hospital, just to be safe

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sean1 [175 posts] 2 years ago
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Well done John for debunking yet another anti-cycling falsehood based on dubious evidence.

Please send this to Tim Hartford on Radio 4's More or Less program, they will love ripping this little survey apart....

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd

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truffy [653 posts] 2 years ago
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Quote:

42 percent of 33 is 13.86

Ummm, while correct, the proper way of looking at it is that 14 out of 33 is 42.42424242%, which rounds down to 42%. Magic!

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babybat [27 posts] 2 years ago
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I think we can all agree that riding on pavements, through red lights, and into blind people is bad, and should not be accepted. However, it seems like Guide Dogs have set out to set one group of vulnerable road users against another, and make out that all cyclists are guilty of this kind of behaviour.

I really don't understand why LCC didn't think more carefully before getting involved - if they wanted an opportunity to work with Guide Dogs on a cooperative campaign and overcome some of the opposition within the organisation to good cycling infrastructure, why not try and show how really effective protected bike lanes reduce the risk to blind and partially sighted people? Why not campaign against rubbish shared pavements and road design that puts us in conflict?

As you say, the elephant in the room is traffic - it's time to stop accepting it as an inevitability, and start seriously pushing for changes in the way our roads are designed, to make them safer and more welcoming for everyone, even if they're not on a bike.

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armb [100 posts] 2 years ago
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> " ... skip red lights at pedestrian crossings."
> The reaction of one guide dog user I mentioned this to was: "How did they know, they're blind?" Well, quite.

Pedestrians crossings (at least some of them) make a noise precisely so blind users know when the lights are green for pedestrians.
If you're narrowly missed by a cyclist, especially a yelling one, it's not that hard to work out what they are just by sound, or with the sort of minimal vision that still counts as legally blind.
Or there could simply have been sighted pedestrians on the same crossings at the same time who reported what they saw to the blind user.

The story massively and unfairly exaggerated a handful of reports of cyclists behaving badly; that doesn't mean no cyclists at all ever behaved badly.
Plenty of cyclists do sometimes go through red lights at crossings; a smaller number of them sometimes do so uncomfortably close to pedestrians, and without considering that a pedestrian might not be able to see them coming.

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truffy [653 posts] 2 years ago
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babybat wrote:

it seems like Guide Dogs have set out to set one group of vulnerable road users against another, and make out that all cyclists are guilty of this kind of behaviour.

Yet there are some tossers on road.cc who seem to think that all motorists are as guilty as each other.

Funny ol' world, innit?

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Mr Agreeable [172 posts] 2 years ago
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Good work John. From the way you were going on Twitter I was expecting this article to be a stream of profanities (well, "gonads" aside).

I recently had the chance to do some visual impairment awareness training and I'd recommend it to anyone. I now know there are 7.5 million people in the UK who are blind or have some form of uncorrectable visual impairment. That's a MASSIVE chunk of the population who have to face hostile street conditions every time they venture out of the door.

Blind people are concerned about a lot of the same things as cyclists, such as "traffic flow smoothing" measures aimed at forcing through yet more traffic, or fashionable "shared space" schemes which advocate switching off traffic lights and ripping out kerbs. When they try and get something done about these, they get the same response cyclists get, or parents who want their kids to be able to play in the street - Eric Pickles and his ilk telling them that cars drive the UK's economy, and constraining them to improve everyone's quality of life would be economic suicide.

I fully expect whatever spotty whizzkid thought up this survey to go on to a successful career in the charity sector, and probably end up as an advisor to a mainstream political party.

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nuclear coffee [211 posts] 2 years ago
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Hmmmm. The stats are certainly dodgy, to say the least. This is a reasonably good entry for anyone interested in telling good from bad stats.

But I'm more interested in what the guide dog campaign group's agenda is - unlike, say, the Daily Fail's, I'm not predisposed to seeing evil here.

Perhaps consider holding the cannons? The blind are not our natural enemies, if we can avoid a fight it might be best to do so.

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mrmo [2088 posts] 2 years ago
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armb wrote:

Pedestrians crossings (at least some of them) make a noise precisely so blind users know when the lights are green for pedestrians.

Going OT, a lot of lights no longer make any noise, the ones near me rely on a small cone under the box, if you feel it, it rotates when the lights change to alert that it is now safe to cross, i guess it helps deaf and blind in one step?????

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jollygoodvelo [1466 posts] 2 years ago
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Pretty shameful work by GDBA's press office.

I used to have links to them - we 'puppy walked' a couple of dogs when I was younger. I'd go so far as to say they were my favourite charity, as they deal in quality of life. Well, consider that goodwill "smashed into".

Wouldn't it be ironic if they were fundraising money from cyclists? Oh. http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/microsites/events/find-an-event/cycling/prud...

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Shades [302 posts] 2 years ago
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People raise money for guide dogs and the GDBA use it to churn out this garbage  39

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jacknorell [971 posts] 2 years ago
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nuclear coffee wrote:

Hmmmm. The stats are certainly dodgy, to say the least. This is a reasonably good entry for anyone interested in telling good from bad stats.

But I'm more interested in what the guide dog campaign group's agenda is - unlike, say, the Daily Fail's, I'm not predisposed to seeing evil here.

Perhaps consider holding the cannons? The blind are not our natural enemies, if we can avoid a fight it might be best to do so.

Seems like their PR team started with a full frontal assault, not exactly friendly, is it?

They should be allies, but quite clearly they did not think having us on their side would help the cause.

Basically, cynical b*llsh*t that very rightly needs to be called out and their agenda very publicly questioned.

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vbvb [610 posts] 2 years ago
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Casualty stats withdrawn? I think not - third from top tweet on their twitter thingy right now is a retweet of the 1-in 4 thing (see below). No, I think they're very pleased with it all, and really don't give a hoot if they're demonising cyclists.

.............................................................................

Retweeted by LondonGuidedogs
J. L. Jiménez @jljimenez · Aug 27

RT"@blackcab: 1 in 4 London guide dogs have been hit by a cyclist. @GuidedogsLondon R raising awareness in Lambeth. pic.twitter.com/bzHXXXjJ81"

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andybwhite [250 posts] 2 years ago
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I, for one, shalln't be giving any more money to Guide Dogs for the Blind. It won't make a difference but that money will go somewhere where it won't be spent bashing me and my like  14

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John Stevenson [251 posts] 2 years ago
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truffy wrote:
Quote:

42 percent of 33 is 13.86

Ummm, while correct, the proper way of looking at it is that 14 out of 33 is 42.42424242%, which rounds down to 42%. Magic!

That's only the proper way of looking at it if you don't want to make a point about giving the illusion of scienceyness by using percentages to mask the tiny numbers involved.  3

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wheelsucker [58 posts] 2 years ago
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'expectation bias'. You become aware of something, and suddenly you start seeing it everywhere.
They should be thrilled...if they were blind to start with..
In hindsight this whole campaign is obviously very shortsighted

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Scoob_84 [381 posts] 2 years ago
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Excellent work debunking the stats - however, I still think there are far too many impatient, selfish and careless cyclists who jump red lights and ride on pavements. This may be the reason why so many unquestionably bought into this guide dog story as there are still too many menacing cyclists about.

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sooper6 [25 posts] 2 years ago
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It is not the first time GDB has produced dubious surveys to make a political point. They lobby on a regular basis against pedestrian schemes up and down the country that allow cycling and have trotted out equally dodgy stats before. Sadly they have been successful in many areas in banning cycling from pedestrianized areas, even though their dodgy statistics have been exposed.
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2011/apr/05/cyclists-sh...

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bikebot [2004 posts] 2 years ago
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seanbolton wrote:

Well done John for debunking yet another anti-cycling falsehood based on dubious evidence.

Please send this to Tim Hartford on Radio 4's More or Less program, they will love ripping this little survey apart....

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd

I've just heard the trailer during PM on Radio 4, and they will indeed be featuring this survey on More or Less.

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bikewithnoname [88 posts] 2 years ago
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" ... skip red lights at pedestrian crossings."
> The reaction of one guide dog user I mentioned this to was: "How did they know, they're blind?" Well, quite.

Well they do have a GUIDE dog with them, the dog would know if the light is red or green and either be guiding them accross the road if safe or sat still if not, that's one of the neat tricks they learn...

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AndrewRH [56 posts] 2 years ago
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Their campaign is actually called Cycleyes as in 'Cycle? Yes!'  41

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downfader [203 posts] 2 years ago
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cat1commuter wrote:

I think the two biggest problems with the survey are:

1.) It is self selecting. You're more likely to respond to the survey if you have an axe to grind.

2.) How do they know that the people who did fill in the survey are actually guide dog users, and that they only filled in the survey once?

The sample size wouldn't be too bad if it was a proper random sample. eg: If you had the telephone number of every London guide dog user, you could ring up a randomly selected sample of them. Correct use of statistics on the result could also give an estimate of how accurate it is likely to be.

Another way of creating a more accurate stat is to not tell them what you're researching and to bung it into a "dummy" survey. This way they see questions about hair or shopping but the true questions kind of blend in.

Its like psychologists say - the best observations come from when people dont know they're being watched

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downfader [203 posts] 2 years ago
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bikewithnoname wrote:

" ... skip red lights at pedestrian crossings."
> The reaction of one guide dog user I mentioned this to was: "How did they know, they're blind?" Well, quite.

Well they do have a GUIDE dog with them, the dog would know if the light is red or green and either be guiding them accross the road if safe or sat still if not, that's one of the neat tricks they learn...

If the person is walking with a stick then some crossing points obviously beep. Others have little motorised rollers that they can hold - when the green man activates the roller spins in their hand.

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Paul_C [473 posts] 2 years ago
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truffy wrote:
babybat wrote:

it seems like Guide Dogs have set out to set one group of vulnerable road users against another, and make out that all cyclists are guilty of this kind of behaviour.

Yet there are some tossers on road.cc who seem to think that all motorists are as guilty as each other.

Funny ol' world, innit?

well actually they are... I've never met anyone who can truly claim to have obeyed every single instruction and sign in the highway code to the letter or not to have sped over the limit or not to have pushed on through an amber as it turns red...

it would horrify you the frequency of which I've had to drive my car through a late amber to avoid being rammed up the rear by someone who wasn't going to stop...

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OldRidgeback [2632 posts] 2 years ago
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babybat wrote:

I think we can all agree that riding on pavements, through red lights, and into blind people is bad, and should not be accepted. However, it seems like Guide Dogs have set out to set one group of vulnerable road users against another, and make out that all cyclists are guilty of this kind of behaviour.

I really don't understand why LCC didn't think more carefully before getting involved - if they wanted an opportunity to work with Guide Dogs on a cooperative campaign and overcome some of the opposition within the organisation to good cycling infrastructure, why not try and show how really effective protected bike lanes reduce the risk to blind and partially sighted people? Why not campaign against rubbish shared pavements and road design that puts us in conflict?

As you say, the elephant in the room is traffic - it's time to stop accepting it as an inevitability, and start seriously pushing for changes in the way our roads are designed, to make them safer and more welcoming for everyone, even if they're not on a bike.

Actually, pavement riding is fine as long as it's done carefully, which is why the police are advised only to intervene when it's unsafe. What's wrong with hopping a kerb when there's no one on it?

Otherwise though I pretty much agree with what you're saying. Vehicle traffic is the real issue.

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drfabulous0 [409 posts] 2 years ago
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truffy wrote:

Yet there are some tossers on road.cc who seem to think that all motorists are as guilty as each other.

Funny ol' world, innit?

Guess that makes me a tosser then. The way I see it if you're driving a car with no passengers, using a car for a journey under 8 miles, using your phone while driving even with a hands free, travelling at or slightly over the limit, driving any 4wd vehicle on the road, parking in the bike lane or on the footpath or any number of things which are legal and accepted then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM!!

On your bike mate!

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freespirit1 [242 posts] 2 years ago
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It does not matter what form of transport you prefer, intimidating a blind person really is one of the lowest things you can do. Anyone who seeks to make light of it really should be put in a padded room!!

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truffy [653 posts] 2 years ago
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drfabulous0 wrote:
truffy wrote:

Yet there are some tossers on road.cc who seem to think that all motorists are as guilty as each other.

Funny ol' world, innit?

Guess that makes me a tosser then. The way I see it if you're driving a car with no passengers, using a car for a journey under 8 miles, using your phone while driving even with a hands free, travelling at or slightly over the limit, driving any 4wd vehicle on the road, parking in the bike lane or on the footpath or any number of things which are legal and accepted then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM!!

Are you saying, then that ALL motorists fulfil all of these criteria? I think you may be deluded. In fact, I KNOW you are.

But I do accept your assertion that you're a tosser.

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