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Watchdog under fire for insisting cyclists in ads must wear helmets and saying they should ride 0.5m from the kerb

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a complaint against an advertisement from Cycling Scotland that showed a woman cycling without a helmet and riding in primary position in the road, saying it broke rules relating to “social responsibility” and “harm and offence.” Cycling Scotland plans to appeal the decision. 

Advertising watchdog ASA also says that cyclists in TV adverts must wear helmets, and also suggests that cyclists should ride no more than 0.5 metres from the kerb – neither of which are required by the law.

The ASA judgement would also appear to cast doubt on the social responsibility of cycle safety campaigns mounted by Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport (DfT) which have also featured helmetless cyclists.

Inevitably, the decision has prompted a wave of critcism of the ASA - @asa_UK - on Twitter and elsewhere, with national cyclists' organisation CTC saying it "is deeply concerned at the effect such a ruling could have on the future popularity of cycling, by increasing public fears that cycling is more 'dangerous' than it really is."

The advert in question, called ‘See Cyclist. Think Horse’ formed part of the Scottish Government’s £425,000 Nice Way Code campaign, heavily criticised by some cycling campaigners when it was launched last year.

The spot aimed to highlight to motorists how much space they should give cyclists when overtaking. Some cyclists shown were wearing helmets, others were bareheaded, including a woman shown at the end of the advert being overtaken by a man in a car.

The ASA says that it received five complaints from people who had “challenged whether the ad was irresponsible and harmful, because it showed a cyclist without a helmet or any other safety attire, who was cycling down the middle of the road rather than one metre from the curb [sic].”

Upholding those complaints, the ASA said:

The ASA acknowledged that the ad was primarily encouraging motorists to take care when driving within the vicinity of cyclists.

We noted that the cyclist in the final scene was not wearing a helmet or any other safety attire, and appeared to be more than 0.5 metres from the parking lane. We also acknowledged that the cyclist was shown in broad daylight on a fairly large lane without any traffic.

We understood that UK law did not require cyclists to wear helmets or cycle at least 0.5 metres from the kerb. However, under the Highway Code it was recommended as good practice for cyclists to wear helmets. Therefore, we considered that the scene featuring the cyclist on a road without wearing a helmet undermined the recommendations set out in the Highway Code. Furthermore, we were concerned that whilst the cyclist was more than 0.5 metres from the kerb, they appeared to be located more in the centre of the lane when the car behind overtook them and the car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic. Therefore, for those reasons we concluded the ad was socially irresponsible and likely to condone or encourage behaviour prejudicial to health and safety.

The ad breached BCAP Code rules 1.2 (Social responsibility), 4.1 and 4.4 (Harm and offence).

It's a muddled judgment that on the one hand cites the Highway Code as authority for requiring the advertiser to always show cyclists wearing a helmet – the Highway Code says cyclists "should wear a cycle helmet," but they are not compulsory – while also talking about a “parking lane” and an apparently arbitrary distance of 0.5 metres from the kerb, neither of which have a foundation in law.

As for the finding that “the car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic,” some might question how closely the ASA studied the Highway Code, which illustrates the distance drivers should give cyclists when overtaking with a picture of a car that is almost entirely over the broken white line in the middle of the road (see Rule 163 here).

In defence of the advert, Cycling Scotland told the ASA that using a mixture of cyclists with and without helmets reflected the fact that they are not a legal requirement and are a matter of individual choice.

It added that the video shoot had been supervised by one of its most experienced instructors, and that the distance the cyclist was from the kerb was because that was the safest position on the road in question to make her visible to other users.

In a statement, Cycling Scotland said: “We are disappointed with the adjudication of the ASA Council and the statement that future ads should always feature cyclists wearing helmets. Our guidance on the issue of helmets and safety attire for adults on bicycles mirrors the legal requirements set out for cyclists in the Highway Code.

There is a broad spectrum of research and opinion across the road safety and health communities when it comes to issues relating to helmet use and the ad reflected this diversity by showing cyclists both with and without helmets.

“The advert was produced in close consultation with an experienced cycle training instructor who carefully considered the use of road positioning and safety attire required for cycling in the daytime. The road positioning in the advert complies with the National Standard for cycle training, which is referenced within the Highway Code. The driver of the car in the advert also follows the Highway Code, which states that vulnerable road users, such as those on a bicycle, should be given at least as much space as you would give a car when overtaking."

ASA adjudications can be appealed by the advertiser, broadcaster or complainant within 21 days to an independent adjudicator, one of the grounds being that “a substantial flaw of process or adjudication is apparent, or show that additional relevant evidence is available.”

Cycling Scotland says it “fully intends to pursue the ASA Council’s Independent Review process open to us.”

The ASA’s decision conflicts with a 2011 ruling on an advert filmed in Copenhagen from car manufacturer Citroën that depicted several cyclists without helmets. It said the advert could not be shown during children’s TV shows, but it was permissible for it to be aired at other times.

A petition had been set up on the website Change.org calling on independent adjudicator Sir Hayden Phillips to reverse the ASA's decision - something he can only do following an appeal by Cycling Scotland.

But with 750-plus names already on the petiition, compared to five people who originally complained about the advert, it could help focus his mind.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.