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

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?
 

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.

69 comments

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brittleware [30 posts] 3 years ago
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To my surprise it was in fact a documentary which - it seemed to me and others watching with me - to be pretty fair to cyclists. Good and bad on both sides, but quite clearly not about sensaisionalist nonsense.

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Peacenik [7 posts] 3 years ago
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I'd say Brittleware's got it about right on this one. 'War...' simply contained lots of examples of bad behaviour from cyclists & motorists alike. All human, all a bit depressing, but nothing to get too steamed up about, especially if you're not in London where, as we already know, things would be better if everyone just slowed down a bit, chilled out, smiled and showed each other more respect!

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Paul J [836 posts] 3 years ago
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Agreed with brittleware, I found it fairly balanced and thought provoking. It tried to just give a perspective from the point of view of those directly involved - road users and relatives. Because of which, I can understand why they didn't bring in Prof Ian Walker, or the CTC - that would have forced it to become a different programme.

Overall, a reasonable, good programme.

Edit: The things complained about, the alley cat racing and hip, alley-cat racer wannabes - that was real footage. While those are perhaps extreme examples, there are people who ride like knobs, especially bad when they do so around pedestrians (treating peds in the kind of way we hate when cars do similar to us). It's not unfair to show this.

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a.jumper [845 posts] 3 years ago
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Utter rubbish. Trash TV. How can they call this a documentary on a public service broadcaster?

Apart from the HGV bit, there was nothing on the solutions, or even decent analysis of the problems. Just a load of road rage porn.

Much of the footage was old and unlabelled, a lot was London and no, the pro footage wasn't labelled. I can't believe the BBC did that. Very worrying. What else shouldn't we trust on there?

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Hoester [67 posts] 3 years ago
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I have to agree with Peacenik, nothing to get worked up about. I'm afraid some people will draw more partisan conclusions though.

I would however respectfully disagree with Paul that it was a good programme, I felt it was lazy televsion and an opportunity missed considering it was an hour long.

In terms of balance I felt the portrayal of the health risks vs. benefits associated with cycling was misrepresented. This may have been an unintentional by-product, but is unhelpful nevertheless.

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fatbeggaronabike [757 posts] 3 years ago
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To play devil's advocate the taxi driver featured on the show claimed he was on his way home and in a "calm and relaxed frame of mind", when he got out of his cab using threatening behaviour, shouting, finger waging trying to intimidate with his size etc etc.

I would hate to think how many people he's killed whilst slightly vexed!

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Paul J [836 posts] 3 years ago
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The programme wasn't about the health benefits. Would it be nice to see a programme examine the relative trade-offs in risks, from those of cycling versus those of sitting in a car, fatty placques slowly building up and clogging your arteries? Yes, undoubtedly. However, that wasn't this programme.

This programme was about hostility on the roads, in particular hostility shown towards cyclists, and a few of the major risks to cyclists. A large part of the programme was taken up with showing clips of quite appalling driving, and with explanations from cyclists as to why this is frightening, why we take the lane, etc. That hostility is real, it definitely exists. Every cyclist in Britain will experience close passes, even punishment passes - if they cycle for more than a week. This programme was showing that, and explaining it, on *prime-time* british television!

The risks are of course a lot more minimal. Overall cycling is fairly safe, despite the dumb drivers. Once you take health benefits into consideration, cycling is most definitely a positive thing. The programme didn't go into that, it wasn't what it was pitching for, and perhaps it would have been a worse programme had it tried. However, both Magnatom and CyclingGaz did still touch on the positive aspects of cycling.

The programme did cover the major risk to cyclists - no, not going bare-headed - extensively: HGVs and passing on the inside. This is particularly a major risk to uneducated or more casual cyclists, ones who perhaps don't read cycling websites, who simply don't know any better when it comes to avoiding the blind-side (left side for UK/Irish lorries, but the *right* side for foreign lorries!). Further, much more remains to be done on outfitting lorries with guards to reduce risk of cyclists going under wheels, on better HGV driver training, on increased penalties for HGV operating companies who place time pressures on drivers that lead them to take risks, etc.

Cycling education, on prime-slot British television. Raising the profile of the *biggest* cycling safety issues, on prime-slot British television! Wow, progress! If you're going to decry this as an outrage to cycling, I can't agree.

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pjay [246 posts] 3 years ago
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Complete waste of a one hour prime time slot on BBC1. All heat, no light.

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pauldavies83 [16 posts] 3 years ago
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It was sensationalist, and something I would definitely qualify as trash TV.

But if people in cars, lorries, buses and on bikes are just a little more careful this morning, then maybe it wasn't a complete waste of time.

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Bike Science [7 posts] 3 years ago
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For me it was an unexpected surprise. Whilst there was of course a sensationalist aspect, there were also some thought provoking moments (from a cyclists and drivers perspective). Overall I felt it was a lot more balanced than the pre-program hype had made out. If it makes one rider or one motorist think enough to avoid a potentially deadly situation then great.

I had to especially admire, the bravery and determination of the mother of the young lady killed by a cement lorry. Her work with the company involved to improve their lorry design and driver training has already saved lives by the sounds of it and it doesn't seem as though she'll stop there. Deepest sympathy to her an her family, but a huge thanks from me as a cycling road user for never giving up on her quest.

Not sure if road.cc have written anything in the past along the lines of a road cyclists "survival guide", but I think it would perhaps make useful reading for all of us. Top tips for riders to improve their own safety on the road. A lot of it may be obvious, but again it only takes one person to read it and learn enough to keep them self safe.

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zanf [759 posts] 3 years ago
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pjay wrote:

Complete waste of a one hour prime time slot on BBC1. All heat, no light.

Exactly. Prime time reality tv. Thats all it was.

If it was such a fair and balanced programme investigating the conflict between cyclists and drivers, then where were the women? No female cyclists (except a dead one) and not a single female driver detailing conflicts she has had.

Absolute trash that set out only to provoke reaction with no investigation into causes (bad infrastructure, lack of (continuous) road craft training throughout all road users), or into any solutions.

Cheap, nasty, low production values television. I wouldnt expect anything more from the same company that produces "Cash In The Attic". At least "Rude Tube" knows its a pile of shit tv show that uses YouTube clips.

And the way it make a kicking boy out of CycleGaz was terrible, without even the slightest mention of his Silly Cyclists website http://www.sillycyclists.co.uk/

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Karbon Kev [688 posts] 3 years ago
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what do you expect from the bbc? very typical, unfortunately.

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zanf [759 posts] 3 years ago
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Karbon Kev wrote:

what do you expect from the bbc? very typical, unfortunately.

So do you really think that any of the other 4 major channels would have made (or have even attempted) a better job?

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cycling.instructor [5 posts] 3 years ago
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The use of the brunelle alley cat footage gave a false impression of cyclists behaviour in London.

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Hasis [37 posts] 3 years ago
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The inclusion of anything like this would have made the programme better from a road-user 'education' perspective:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzL0Kyk4m-8

I was shocked to tears by the fatal collision footage, but the opportunity for incisive 'lessons' identification was largely lost. Unfortunate.

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Mendip James [38 posts] 3 years ago
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I was expecting worse to be honest, the mothers tribute and efforts in honour of her lost daughter were humbling. What I think the programme missed and would have concluded things well is that whoever people percieve as right or wrong, whatever social sterotypes are made, there is only 1 person in that equation who is in a life threatening position. I think this is a thought that the programme makers could have ended with, whether you're in a car or on a bike it's important to remember

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airborneyellow [8 posts] 3 years ago
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This was a poor documentary. Aside from the programme-maker's evident po-faced schadenfreude in presenting these as invariably adversarial encounters, it was overly London-centric, and extrapolated the views of two riders, three motorists (2x taxi, 1x lorry) and a bereaved mother into 'the views of all road-users'. It would be amusing if it wasn't so lazily misleading. For me, the only credible element was Cynthia's moving story.

As a cyclist and a motorist, here's an anecdote: I live in a part of the country with lots of twisting narrow lanes. Approaching right-hand curves, I can usually see much further ahead from my position riding close to the verge than any following motorists can from their driving position in the offside of vehicles close to the centre of the road. If the road is safely clear ahead, I always give the following vehicles an obvious and lengthy thumbs-up. Almost without exception this is acted upon, and almost without exception I get a friendly wave, pip on the horn or flashed indicators as the released motorist zooms off. This doesn't make me a hero, but it does illustrate two facts which it didn't suit the programme-makers to acknowledge: that basic courtesy is usually appreciated and reciprocated, and that different road users aren't automatically antagonistic towards one another.

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euanlindsay [80 posts] 3 years ago
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Anyone who cites the alley cat footage as meaningless because it is extreme behaviour has their head in the sand. People ride like that all the time. It is part of their "bike culture". It is promoted and celebrated.

Noone is complaining about the other aspects of extreme footage shown last night, like drivers getting out of their cars and assaulting cyclists.

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Gizmo_ [1333 posts] 3 years ago
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Turned it off after the first half hour, around the part where the guy in Glasgow nearly got hit by a tanker.

As above - lots of examples of bad behaviour from drivers and cyclists. I found myself giving a running commentary to my other half (who is paranoid about me cycling at the best of times) - "What's he doing up the inside there?" "Why is he stopping to argue, why not just sod off?" "That car's going to pull out, see, told you." "I've seen this bit before, he's going over the bonnet." (At the mini-roundabout). It wasn't helped by the cyclist at the start being so instantly dislikable.

Why can't we all just get along?

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OldRidgeback [2554 posts] 3 years ago
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I missed the start of it but saw the second half. It could have been worse, but could quite easily have been a whole lot better had it been made by a better team.

There were some good moments and the mother of the girl killed by the mixer truck made very poignant comments. This was probably the high point, or it was of what I saw. The taxi driver who re-evaluated his opinions after his nephew was killed also made good points, as did the cement mixer driver talking about cyclists cutting up the inside of HGVs at junctions.

But there was a lot of misrepresentation. Much of what I saw was cheaply produced, sensationalist rubbish.

Had the program been better produced and more honest about the facts, it would have had significantly more impact.

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zanf [759 posts] 3 years ago
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euanlindsay wrote:

Anyone who cites the alley cat footage as meaningless because it is extreme behaviour has their head in the sand. People ride like that all the time. It is part of their "bike culture". It is promoted and celebrated.

Noone is complaining about the other aspects of extreme footage shown last night, like drivers getting out of their cars and assaulting cyclists.

The alleycat racing has provoked such a reaction because it is exceptional and not the average cyclist behaviour. It showed a complete imbalance and a huge sensationalist slant because if the show was about 'balance' then it would have shown cars on organised races tearing about, or even this: http://youtu.be/MhFlw7r63R8

To argue anything else is plain ignorant.

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dave atkinson [6142 posts] 3 years ago
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euanlindsay wrote:

Anyone who cites the alley cat footage as meaningless because it is extreme behaviour has their head in the sand. People ride like that all the time. It is part of their "bike culture".

a tiny, insignificant minority ride like that sometimes, you mean. it was specifically a race.

by the same token, there's a tiny, insignificant minority of motorists who like to race illegally. it's just not representative.

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Sudor [184 posts] 3 years ago
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One positive was the story of the brave lady who after losing her daughter to a left turning cement mixer became a Cemex shareholder and achieved positive changes to improve road safety for us.

It's a lesson in activism - all of us involved in logistics and procurement should, as part of contract requirements, demand minimum standards and improvements in lorry design, proximity warning sensors, cameras and driver training to help reduce the exceptional risks posed by lorries.

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euanlindsay [80 posts] 3 years ago
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Sigh. Where was the footage of the cyclists attacking drivers then? It happens. I've witnessed it.

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WolfieSmith [1244 posts] 3 years ago
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Like airborneyellow I've started in the past few months on country lanes to wave cars on and also give those that wait until it's safe to over take a wave of thanks. It works well. I often get a little wave and a beep back to show that my appreciation of their good sense has been appreciated back. It seems to reinforce in their minds too that I know they're there, I'm trying to help them on their way and I like to think they carry the mutual respect generated on to the next cyclist.

On the local club run we have a 2 lane road at traffic lights that has a right turn lane that turns into a a narrower road. Filtering to the front, as you turn in, quite often in the past I've been deliberately cut up by the first driver - incensed that I've come to the front of the queue got in front of him and added 5 seconds to his journey.

However, turning wide to allow as many cars through in front as you turn right and waving them on works wonders.

Weak? Maybe. But if I want to push in and demand to be recognised as in a hurry and entitled to go first at every set of lights am I not behaving as childishly as some motorists?

It adds 5 seconds to my journey but a line of drivers go home thinking that not all cyclists are self righteous wankers and next time they see a cyclist they expect to share the road again.

It is a war out there but sometimes you don't have to butt heads to get the right results.

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zanf [759 posts] 3 years ago
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euanlindsay wrote:

Sigh. Where was the footage of the cyclists attacking drivers then? It happens. I've witnessed it.

You really are a dullard, arent you?

Where was the footage of pedestrians walking into the road whilst engrossed in browsing their mobiles or locked into calls?

Or pedestrians that run out into the road despite having looked and seen oncoming traffic?

For me, that is typical behaviour I experience every day on the journey in and way home.

I think that programme was well suited to you because you come across as a short attention spanned voyeurist who enjoys road rage pornography, seeing as you're upset by the lack of it.

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euanlindsay [80 posts] 3 years ago
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Arguing on the internet is fun. I'm out. Off to listen to some Frankie Goes to Hollywood

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karlowen [65 posts] 3 years ago
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I don't get why Brunelle is referred to as a "professional" documentary maker, or why any of the riders involved in the alleycats he films are "professional". Brunelle is a profession IT geek who pumps loads of that cash into making amateur documentarys, and the riders are mostly fakengers whos closest thing to a profession is having a trust fund.

I mostly thought it was a reasonable documentary and agree with a lot of others that the Mother of the killed cyclist, the taxi driver who's grandson had been killed and the Cemex driver all made decent points.

I did have a bit of trepidation going into a few roundabouts on my commute this morning though! That HGV on the glaswegian guy was terrifying!

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Simon E [2539 posts] 3 years ago
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a.jumper wrote:

Utter rubbish. Trash TV. How can they call this a documentary on a public service broadcaster?

Apart from the HGV bit, there was nothing on the solutions, or even decent analysis of the problems. Just a load of road rage porn.

Surprise, surprise!  2

I saw about 2 minutes of it after watching the Revolution track racing on ITV4. It looked exactly as I had expected after reading Carlton's dissection - tabloid-style sensationalism with little of substance - so turned it off and went to do something productive.

Good point made above about pedestrians, they are the forgotten (silent?) majority. We're all peds at least some of the time. If towns and cities were designed with their needs uppermost then they would be a lot more pleasant places in which to live, work and travel.

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mrmo [2016 posts] 3 years ago
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if your going to show the alleycat racing, why not show the motorcyclist lapping the paris peripherique, or some footage of cars street racing.

It all happens and is equally illegal, only real difference is who and how many get killed if it goes wrong.

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