Truth the first casualty in BBC's War on Britain's Roads?

Balance and objectivity also reported missing in action as BBC airs controversial documentary

by Simon_MacMichael   December 6, 2012  

London cyclist approaching junction.jpg

BBC One yesterday evening aired its controversial documentary The War on Britain’s Roads. By inaccurately presenting cyclists and motorists as polar opposites in a bid to sensationalise the issue, the broadcaster missed an opportunity to make a constructive contribution to the road safety debate that is being pursued elsewhere – most notably, in the press, led by The Times, and Parliament, due to the efforts of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group with support from cycle campaigners.

Much of the footage will already be familiar to road.cc users, having been widely viewed on sites such as YouTube for several years in some cases. For the vast majority watching, however, it would have been the first time they’d seen it.

Less than a month ago, AA President Edmund King had called for an end to the ‘two tribes’ mentality that polarises the cycle safety debate between cyclists and motorists. If anyone from the programme’s makers, Leopard Films, read his comments, it didn’t show.

There was no acknowledgement that most adult cyclists also drive cars. No hint that millions of motorists also ride bikes. Cyclists and motorists, it appeared, were enemies, as the programme’s title suggests, though even that was misleading – if there was a combat zone anywhere, it was largely on London’s streets.

We already knew, through feedback from those who’d been given the opportunity of previewing the whole show, that it was likely to be a piece of sensationalist programming that deliberately focused on polarised extremes rather than trying to present a balanced picture of the everyday reality of cycling.

In the past days, the BBC was urged to review some of the programme’s content, in particular a segment of six-year-old footage, which as road.cc recently revealed was shot by professional American documentary maker Lucas Brunelle, of alleycat racing through London’s streets. The footage was released commercially as a DVD through his website after originally being posted to YouTube.

In the final version of last night’s documentary, the programme makers mentioned in passing that it reflected “extreme behaviour” – certainly well short of the kind of clarification that had been sought and that use of the footage warranted.

Among those who pressed the BBC to review the content of the documentary, efforts intensifying yeterday as transmission time approached, was Carlton Reid, executive editor of BikeBiz, who in an article on that site catalogues those approaches made to the broadcaster to have the show’s content toned down. Handily, he sets out how you can complain, and provides some of the BBC guidelines the programme is said to have ignored.

We don’t know whether the London cyclist shown weaving in and out of a queue of near-stationary traffic at speed, before aiming for a non-existent gap between a double decker bus and a pick-up truck – it seems a miracle he wasn’t killed – was playing out exactly that kind of alleycat scene in his head. The BBC’s editorial guidelines, citing Ofcom rules, are clear though that reckless behaviour some might be tempted to imitate is out of bounds.

The single most powerful moment in the programme was also the one that gave its makers the opportunity to explore, briefly and inadequately, the road safety angle without resorting to sensationalising it.

Stop-frame CCTV footage showed the moment when cyclist Alex Barlow was killed by a cement mixer on London Wall in 2002. It was chilling viewing. The programme focused on the efforts of her mother, Cynthia, who had given permission for that footage to be used, to improve lorry safety, beginning with the company that owned the truck that had killed her daughter. Those segments gave a glimpse of what the programme could have been.

A surprising moment came at the end, when a taxi driver of five decades’ standing, who during the programme had pointed out various pieces of misbehaviour by cyclists such as jumping red light, revealed that he had actually come to realise just how vulnerable cyclists are on the city’s streets after his own grandson lost his life.

That vulnerability was clearly shown in the helmetcam footage provided by the likes of Cyclegaz, Magnatom and Traffic Droid, who have each developed a strong following among cyclists on YouTube, with near miss after near miss shown.

But constant references to cyclists ‘taking matters into their own hands’ made it sound as though it was the bike riders themselves who were doing something wrong.

Also lost was the reason why the likes of Cyclegaz perhaps come across as a bit shouty – any rider who has had a large vehicle pass that close to them, where a couple of inches nearer could result in serious injury or worse, will have experienced that rush of adrenalin mixed with shock and fear.

Pedestrians - whose casualty numbers far exceed those of cyclists, with more than four times as many killed last year in rioad traffic incidents, itself a 12 per cent increase on 2010 - were hardly acknowledged, other than one woman shown being hit from behind by a bicycle on a shared use path when without looking, she suddenly moved sideways and into the path of the cyclist who had changed direction to go round her.

By pure coincidence, the programme that preceded War on Britain’s Roads, an episode of the documentary series Supersized Earth contained a segment about a London bike courier called James. No footage of him weaving in and out of traffic, no angry encounters with motorists.

In fact, the only thing anyone could begrudge him was the fact that due to the 50 or 60 miles he reckons he puts in on a typical day, he can eat like a horse without putting any weight on. Cyclists, eh?
 

69 user comments

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colhum1 wrote:
No headcam footage of commutes on the cold dank wet mornings either Thinking
Was it all filmed in summer...? Confused

My cam doesn't like the wet, or low light levels, so it was always going to be skewed to summer.

Interesting points above about giving way when you don't have to and whether riding a bike at 25mph is safe. Personally, I think 25mph can be fine as long as you're not "driving furiously" (even if I very rarely achieve such speeds any more) and I think it's good to give way if you can, but you're doing everyone a disservice doing things like letting a car overtake during a right-turn: it's against the highway code (rules 167 "DO NOT overtake...when a road user is indicating right" and 168 "maintain a steady course", and also 163, 212 and 213) and they may start to expect it and hit another cyclist who quite correctly doesn't swing wide to let cars pass.

I do agree with the "Why is he stopping to argue, why not just sod off?" (I have a camera, but I will ride away ASAP and give the police the recording, rather than confront them myself) and that the editing seemed dodgy.

posted by a.jumper [693 posts]
6th December 2012 - 14:18

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After watching the program I'm just really glad I live out in the sticks. I'm unlucky if I see 10 cars on my 20 mile commute. Ooh arr.

posted by bike_food [93 posts]
6th December 2012 - 14:28

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The real issues seem to me to be:

  • Not representative of cycling in general
  • Very London-centric (as someone above said)
  • Not editorially of high value
  • Cheap television - the seeming lack of investment in this prime-time programme in terms of research, production and independent analysis and comment - which has led to a skewed, slightly off-balance and sensationalist programme
  • Major reliance on contributors who have uploaded footage to YouTube - the self-selected. Interviewing (again as someone said above) others, women, fathers and mothers who cycle and getting a rounded piece would have not have been so dramatic but more accurate
  • Finally - seriously: who would pay their licence fee for such a piece of rubbish. The BBC needs to ignore the ratings battle and stop watching cheap compilation clip programmes to get some really good ideas about making worthwhile programmes

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posted by Luminosity [64 posts]
6th December 2012 - 14:38

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Road.cc, did you write this before watching the doc? It comes across as the most biased, head-in-the-sand, one-sided drivel I've read in a long time. It was nowhere near a bad or sensationalist as you and others wrote it was going to be.

It did represent the more extreme ends of the 'conflict' on both sides, but it was all real examples of bad driving, bad cycling, and people being idiots. They let the first taxi driver embarrass himself in (incorrectly) talking us through the incident with CycleGaz whilst we could see different on screen. Conversely, the alleycat racing made me a little embarrassed.

Quite balanced overall I would say, unlike your write-up. Credit us with a little more intelligence in future please.

posted by edmiddleton [6 posts]
6th December 2012 - 14:45

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For those who say this was London centric, I recognised quite a few of the clips, a not insignificant portion, as being of Glasgow (magnatom's footage).

posted by Paul J [578 posts]
6th December 2012 - 15:18

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Wasn't as bad as I thought, could have been a much better programme but hopefully it will make some of the more moronic cyclsist and drivers think twice in future. Gaz came across as a bot of a kn ob imho, lots of the situations he was in looked like they could have been avoided

Argon18 E-112 - Scott Spark 910 - Boardman Team Carbon - Planet X XLS

posted by colinth [183 posts]
6th December 2012 - 15:33

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Finally - seriously: who would pay their licence fee for such a piece of rubbish. The BBC needs to ignore the ratings battle and stop watching cheap compilation clip programmes to get some really good ideas about making worthwhile programmes

Yeah, but...

Masterchef Professionals
The Hour
Last Tango in Halifax

Nerd

posted by Hasis [36 posts]
6th December 2012 - 15:35

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edmiddleton wrote:
Road.cc, did you write this before watching the doc? It comes across as the most biased, head-in-the-sand, one-sided drivel I've read in a long time. It was nowhere near a bad or sensationalist as you and others wrote it was going to be.

It did represent the more extreme ends of the 'conflict' on both sides, but it was all real examples of bad driving, bad cycling, and people being idiots. They let the first taxi driver embarrass himself in (incorrectly) talking us through the incident with CycleGaz whilst we could see different on screen. Conversely, the alleycat racing made me a little embarrassed.

Quite balanced overall I would say, unlike your write-up. Credit us with a little more intelligence in future please.

You're entitled to your opinion. But it seems like most people posting on this thread saw at least some of the programme and most seem to agree it was poorly made, slanted and sensationalist.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2155 posts]
6th December 2012 - 15:41

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Hmmm, I think there are several comments that agree that it wasn't nearly as bad as it was made out to be.

I'm not saying it was great, but it did at least seem reasonably balanced, unlike the review above.

posted by edmiddleton [6 posts]
6th December 2012 - 16:03

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All those going on about how 'balanced' this was - well, 'balance' is the problem, or rather the BBC's permanent and frustrating quest for it. The result was a prog that was nothing but counterposed tit-for-tat anecdotes without any context.

Adequate context might have included:

- the Highway Code and the duty of care it imposes on drivers for more vulnerable road users,
- the TRL stats which show the vast majority of RTCs involving cars and bikes are the driver's fault, and
- the fact that 'taking the lane' (which the prog suggested was just vigilantism) is recommended best practice from TfL/DfT/IAM/AA/Bikeability.

Without this kind of context, all you get is a lot of angry people in a room shouting at each other, and someone just telling them all to 'be nice', like a nursery school teacher.

When you are a motorist, you have extra responsibility because you have extra power - power to harm and to kill. Without recognition of that basic point, and the basic imbalance of the situation that follows from it, all 'balance' is just bollox.

posted by rochenko [1 posts]
6th December 2012 - 16:34

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Just watched it on iplayer and thought it was alright although I don't ride in London so the only real altercations I see are on youtube or through road.cc stories. It's a shame that the headcams skew the images enough so cars obviously don't appear as close as they were. Alongside Gaz's comment of "if I can touch your car then you're too close" made him seem a bit of a wuss perhaps. I definitely sided with the cabbie in the first piece.

Sq

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posted by Squiggle [414 posts]
6th December 2012 - 16:39

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Yeah, but...

Masterchef Professionals
The Hour
Last Tango in Halifax

None of these are documentaries nor editorially-led programmes which was the point I was trying to make.

War On...was a cross-over genre and didn't succeed in fulfilling any role very well. It certainly wasn't the sort of rounded programming one would hope the BBC would produce.

On a brighter note, Channel 4, having seen what a hash the BBC made of it will no doubt have something in the offing (we hope).

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posted by Luminosity [64 posts]
6th December 2012 - 17:36

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edmiddleton wrote:
Road.cc, did you write this before watching the doc? It comes across as the most biased, head-in-the-sand, one-sided drivel I've read in a long time. It was nowhere near a bad or sensationalist as you and others wrote it was going to be...

[SNIP]

... Quite balanced overall I would say, unlike your write-up. Credit us with a little more intelligence in future please.

Believe me, trying to insult anyone's intelligence was the furthest thing from my mind when I was writing the piece - as no doubt it was from yours when you suggested I'd written the article without having watched it Wink

It's an opinion piece. Feel free to disagree - many in the comments do, and that's fine. We don't all see things the same way. Others saw it more the way we did. One of the things we try and do on the site is encourage grown-up debate with the people who use it, so we're glad you're joining in.

Some general points. One of the more common reactions from cyclists to the programme is that it wasn't as bad as they'd feared it would be. That's not the same as saying it was a good programme. Nor is saying that it was more balanced than expected.

"Biased, head in the sand, one-sided drivel" - really?

Pointing out that instead of depicting cyclists and motorists as different species, most are one and the same?

Saying the programme was a missed opportunity to discuss the road safety debate?

Underlining that most of the footage is already widely known to many cyclists but wouldn't be to most viewers and would provide a sensationalist, misleading picture of what it's really like to ride a bike (and which goes back to the 'two tribes' myth which the programme didn't seek to dispel?

Highlighting why, in the aftermath of a near collision, cyclists may seem to lose their tempers (if I were going to be one-sided, I could have mentioned the drivers getting out of their vehicles and displaying aggression when they'd been at fault... I didn't).

We also mentioned that the issue of pedestrians was hardly mentioned at all, yet far more are being killed than cyclists.

The first draft of the article did mention that besides bad driving, there were also instances of bad cycling, somehow that got lost ahead of publication, so apologies for that.

I did mention however the guy who almost got himself squashed between a bus and pick-up truck. Perhaps I should have made it clearer that it's one of the most idiotic pieces of riding I've seen.

Like I said, it's opinion, and it's healthy that we can express different views on it, without, in the vast majority of cases, resorting to insults.

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7989 posts]
6th December 2012 - 18:24

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@ Robertj4

I know CycleGaz from his youtube channel and I'm surprised how the BBC's show makes you view him, I say this because I know that he cycles in a very professional manner and takes cycling safety very seriously, there is nothing wrong with cycling at 30mph on main roads when those roads are suitable as some are.

Other than that the programme was mostly pointless tabloid journalism and very uneducational.. I don't think it even covered cycling down the inside of HGVs etc in a very informative way.

posted by kie7077 [447 posts]
6th December 2012 - 21:30

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"other than one woman shown being hit from behind by a bicycle on a shared use path when without looking, she suddenly moved sideways and into the path of the cyclist who had changed direction to go round her."

Disappointed with this comment as I feel it's down to the cyclist to make others aware of your presence, in this case the cyclist didn't use a bell or politley shout out. You can't expect everyone to walk in straight lines, we're not robots.

I cycle both roads and various types of shared cycle paths and it really frustrates me when I see other cyclists just bomb it without regard to others...kind of how some car drivers can be around cyclists on roads.

posted by NorthEastJimmy [24 posts]
6th December 2012 - 21:43

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rochenko wrote:
All those going on about how 'balanced' this was - well, 'balance' is the problem, or rather the BBC's permanent and frustrating quest for it. The result was a prog that was nothing but counterposed tit-for-tat anecdotes without any context.

Adequate context might have included:

- the Highway Code and the duty of care it imposes on drivers for more vulnerable road users,
- the TRL stats which show the vast majority of RTCs involving cars and bikes are the driver's fault, and
- the fact that 'taking the lane' (which the prog suggested was just vigilantism) is recommended best practice from TfL/DfT/IAM/AA/Bikeability.

Without this kind of context, all you get is a lot of angry people in a room shouting at each other, and someone just telling them all to 'be nice', like a nursery school teacher.

When you are a motorist, you have extra responsibility because you have extra power - power to harm and to kill. Without recognition of that basic point, and the basic imbalance of the situation that follows from it, all 'balance' is just bollox.

Nicely put.

posted by kie7077 [447 posts]
6th December 2012 - 21:57

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NorthEastJimmy wrote:
Disappointed with this comment as I feel it's down to the cyclist to make others aware of your presence, in this case the cyclist didn't use a bell or politley shout out.

Sorry about that Jimmy, I mentioned that piece of footage to illustrate the lack of coverage of pedestrians, and just said the straight facts as they were on screen. Personally, on a shared use path, I'll call out and make sure I've been heard, giving plenty of room as I pass, or slow right down.

Indeed, Sustrans made this point on Twitter last night while the show was going on: "@sustrans want to remind all watching #bbcwaronroads that shared paths are SHARED. Pedestrians always have priority, please slow down/stop."

I've been on the receiving end myself, and it's not nice - a road in Central Oxford that to all intents and purposes outside market delivery hour is used almost exclusively by pedestrians and cyclists, rider shot up there like she was doing an Olympic TT and almost took me, the wife and the dog out, not to mention a few other people walking down a 100 yards or so stretch of road.

And if you are going to ride like that, it's probably not the brightest idea to be wearing something that has the name of your college and the sports team you play for in big letters on the back Wink

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7989 posts]
6th December 2012 - 22:19

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At least Michael Hutchinson managed to put some sensible points across on Radio 4's Today this morning. 4-minute calm discussion here.

Edit: also some intelligent comments from AA President Edmund King in the Evening Standard http://bit.ly/RE6KCK

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posted by Simon E [1939 posts]
6th December 2012 - 22:30

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Possibly not as bad as I initially thought, but some very scary moments, most of which appear to centre on a clear belief by some of the cyclists featured that they were either completley invincible or owned the roads.

Comments about being brave and taking a strong position in the road smacked of the sort of idiotic antics performed by 19 year olds in hot hatch-backs.

Although jumping out of a car and whacking a cyclist over the head could never be justified, the guys comment at the end who was subject to that attack almost showed some empathy for some motorists when confronted with that sort of cyclist.

Some of these clowns need to understand road-craft, the Highway Code and human nature.

I thought the Scottish guys close shave with the tanker was frightening.

The traffic droid guy, just didn't know when to leave it.

One things for sure, I'm bloody glad I only have to contend with sleepy Shropshire, and I wouldn't cycle in London for all the tea in China. From what I could see of it, I'm more likley to be hit on a junction by some joker that has run a red light on his Brick Lane Fixie.

There was some balance to the programme in that HGV and Taxi man had their say, and they did raise some valid points.

Could have been worst.

posted by Littlesox [89 posts]
6th December 2012 - 22:50

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I just wanted to throw into this into the pot. I was parked on Dover docks in an Audi estate with a 4 berth caravan attached to the back. A Belgian lorry to the left of me, set off, indicated right, and proceeded to drag his trailer over the front of my car. He didn't stop until some seconds after me blasting on the horn. Car a write off. His excuse... "Sorry mate........!" (fill in the gaps)
What chance do cyclists have?

posted by efail [37 posts]
7th December 2012 - 0:47

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kie7077 wrote:
@ Robertj4

I know CycleGaz from his youtube channel and I'm surprised how the BBC's show makes you view him, I say this because I know that he cycles in a very professional manner and takes cycling safety very seriously, there is nothing wrong with cycling at 30mph on main roads when those roads are suitable as some are.

Other than that the programme was mostly pointless tabloid journalism and very uneducational.. I don't think it even covered cycling down the inside of HGVs etc in a very informative way.

I managed to watch the full program through the day which I believe only high lights cycling in inner cities. My point regarding 30mph is fine on open country roads if you have the thighs to do it (!) but in cities amongst traffic, madness. 'Cycling Gaz' did mention he likes keeping up with cars, there should be no respect for this type of attitude nor would I want to ride with people like this. One thing is certain commuting by cycle in London is growing to large in a short period of time. My heart went out to the lady losing her daughter and to the taxi drivers putting up with bad cycling and aggression because that's what we saw. Don't forget it's the courier riders who've started this, riding badly for years (how about New York City) and getting away with it so all other commuters follow suit. Also a growing trend now for single speed bikers in inner cities and videos on websites to boot promoting more bad riding habits, I'm not talking about the proper organised single speed road racing events but the 'general cycling public' see it as a trendy fashion status riding around showing little respect towards other road users

posted by Roberj4 [188 posts]
7th December 2012 - 1:15

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NorthEastJimmy wrote:
"other than one woman shown being hit from behind by a bicycle on a shared use path when without looking, she suddenly moved sideways and into the path of the cyclist who had changed direction to go round her."

Disappointed with this comment as I feel it's down to the cyclist to make others aware of your presence, in this case the cyclist didn't use a bell or politley shout out. You can't expect everyone to walk in straight lines, we're not robots.

I cycle both roads and various types of shared cycle paths and it really frustrates me when I see other cyclists just bomb it without regard to others...kind of how some car drivers can be around cyclists on roads.

Well said sir! This cyclist was in the wrong again riding to fast and should have shouted out, the same situation when you've horse riders ahead of you, make other pedestrians etc in front of you aware your behind.

posted by Roberj4 [188 posts]
7th December 2012 - 1:25

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Littlesox wrote:
Comments about being brave and taking a strong position in the road smacked of the sort of idiotic antics performed by 19 year olds in hot hatch-backs.
[...]
Some of these clowns need to understand road-craft, the Highway Code and human nature.

You are a clown AICM5P.

So-called "taking the lane" is recommended road-craft, isn't it? The programme was wrong to make it sound anti-social. Another way it stank.

posted by a.jumper [693 posts]
7th December 2012 - 9:31

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Two journos in the same room couldn't agree what colour the ceiling is... a lot of noise about nothing, the program was a "good effort".
PaulR

posted by pralston [3 posts]
7th December 2012 - 15:11

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a "good effort"? or a good effort? Wink

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posted by Dave Atkinson [7285 posts]
7th December 2012 - 15:42

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I thought the documentary was well balanced overall. In my personal view however as a cyclist I do think that some cyclist that post videos on YouTube do so for the notoriety of it all. Not all of them but some.

If anything it was a good bit of PR by the cement company who at least are doing something about the issue of large vehicles having a blind spot. If more firms could follow then that would be great but I guess like anything its down to money to invest in the changes needed.

With regards to alleycat racing on the bikes going in and out traffic they just give cycling a bad name. I understand the BBC may have used it out of context. However what is the idea about riding like that about a city? Sure it looks fun but personally the whole fixed cycling with no brakes idea on the road is just asking for trouble...I myself leave it to the velodrome.

Quite an educational bit from the BBC, so thumbs up to all involved.

Just to mention it is mad out there on the bike , car or foot lol. You just have to deal with it and smile, keep the head and get on with it or maybe move to Copenhagen Wink

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posted by CycleGringo [94 posts]
8th December 2012 - 0:09

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I enjoyed the programme as it showed we, as cyclists, are not all angels and likewise for drivers.

Hopefully this will have started other tv companies thinking and we will have similar ilk style programmes.

We have to face facts though and that is drivers will always come first until someone "famous or important", and i'm talking about the likes of a politician or major celebrity, gets seriously hurt before things will begin to change.

If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it. Gaius Julius Caesar.

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posted by stumps [2696 posts]
8th December 2012 - 12:27

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Can everyone stop using the "W" word. It just perpetuates the us and them mind set, these are all "road users". This program was as series of bad practice by both cyclists, motorists and the occational pedestrian. Not a balanced view of the roads as a whole.
Although this is unlikely to get beyond this column perhaps it's time that everyone reviewed the highway code and then applied the rules (when was the last time you read them?). Working to a common policy means that all others know what to expect and not have to interpret manouvres as they occur often in a split second.
Being both a cyclist and motorist I'm fully aware of who feels and IS the most vulnerable.
Perhaps Aunty Beeb can now put together a documentary showing the delights and benefits of cycling?
Ride/Drive safely.

posted by Posh [46 posts]
8th December 2012 - 12:53

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Its not al bad - the evening of the show I was out on a ride. Firstly I encountered an extremely agressive bus driver who decided that turnig left into a cyclist was a "clever" idea. He then gave me "the finger" ( albeit well concealed from his on board camera ) which unfortunately I replied to! Two miles later he "calmly" asked me why I had given him sign language. I swore at him but luckily quickly realised he had his camera on me. Very cunning - some people are so brave when surrounded by three tonnes of metal.

Five miles later a car was across the cycle path ( legally as he exited a side street ). Upon seeing me he reversed to give me right of way. I thanked him with a wave of my hand and he beeped his acknowledgement - a real gentleman.

POINT - it is balanced out there but be careful we as cyclists are VERY vunerable. Don't provoke anyone - it could end up with you in hospital.

Johnnycookie FLP>DNF>>DNS

posted by johnnycookie [29 posts]
10th December 2012 - 9:07

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I've posted two blogs about this:

* The first was written before the show was broadcast, based on the preview version I had seen:
http://www.ctc.org.uk/blog/roger-geffen/war-on-britain%E2%80%99s-roads-m...

* The second was written immediately after it had been broadcast, with some quite important amendments. It suggests how we can best respond, given that all but one of the most serious bones of contention were edited out of the final broadcast version, thus averting a number of potential complaints under BBC's editorial guidelines:
http://www.ctc.org.uk/blog/roger-geffen/bbc%E2%80%99s-war-on-britain%E2%....

As you'll see, we have instead urged people to write to the BBC calling for them now to put together a positive programme, about the joys of cycling and the very real progress now being made to start a revival of a cycling culture in the UK.

To road.cc readers: do please join in!

Roger Geffen
CTC, the national cycling charity
www.ctc.org.uk/campaigns

posted by Roger Geffen [32 posts]
10th December 2012 - 13:14

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