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"'Road tax' gaffe, incorrect maths and "us vs. them" survey of motorists and cyclists a lesson in how not to do it ...

Insurance comparison firm Confused.com has provoked a storm of criticism from both cyclists and drivers alike with a ham-fisted and error-strewn press release aimed at promoting an equally confused road safety campaign and ostensibly highlighting the problem of road rage on Britain’s roads which has instead managed to alienate – not to mention confuse – almost everyone at whom it was aimed.

Those errors as a simple list for the easily confused:

  • Dodgy maths – Confused.com can't even read their own stats properly
  • Dodgy facts  – road tax doesn't exist and hasn't done since 1937
  • Dodgy puns – "Cyclo-Paths" Ouch!
  • Dodgy division between drivers and cyclists Confused are too confused to realise that most cyclists also drive
  • Dodgy Lycra - what is he wearing at the start of that video? (not that it's a bad vid which only adds to the confusion)
  • Dodgy inability to admit your error with a woeful and illogical non-retraction

Starting with the headline “A quarter of drivers say cyclists should pay road tax” – which is not only factually incorrect since ‘road tax’ doesn’t exist, but also not backed up by the figures in the company’s own research – it’s almost a case study in how not to get you message across.

Let’s deal with that arithmetical error first.

Yes, a quarter of drivers (25 per cent) did say that cyclists should pay ‘road tax’ – but they were drawn only from the 46 per cent of the total 1,000 drivers questioned who had maintained that “they are sometimes annoyed by cyclists being on the road.”

So, 25 per cent of 46 per cent equals 11.5 per cent – one in nine of all drivers questioned, which is rather less than one in four.

Of course it could be that some of the other 54 per cent of drivers who didn't have issues with bike riders might want cyclists to pay 'road tax' too, but we don't know - they weren't asked.

“Simples,” as a certain representative of a rival firm might say.

That key finding of Confused.com’s – but not the error behind it – was picked up by a variety of media outlets including this morning’s Metro, whose story appeared under the headline “'Irresponsible' cyclists should pay road tax, say quarter of drivers.”

The morning freesheet put its own spin on what was already a fundamentally flawed piece of research, framed as it was on a perceived black and white division between motorists, on the one hand, and cyclists, on the other.

“A quarter of motorists now insist ‘irresponsible’ cyclists should share the burden of rising travel costs by paying road tax,” trumpeted the newspaper, itself neglecting to either check Confused.com’s sums or whether such a tax exists.

The fact that by taking to bikes, cyclists are themselves saving on travel costs, and there’s nothing to prevent motorists from doing likewise - indeed, it's likely that some of those cyclists may have switched from their cars to commute - seemed to escape it.

Much of the criticism of Confused.com as news spread of the survey today surrounded that erroneous reference to ‘road tax’ – despite the fact, as organisations as diverse as the AA and the Post Office have acknowledged, that it hasn’t existed since 1937.

The correct term, of course, is Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), with ‘car tax’ an acceptable alternative, as explained on the website iPayRoadTax.com.

The term ‘road tax’ itself was scrapped, in a process begun by Winston Churchill, to avoid drivers laying claim to ownership of the roads because of the perception that they alone paid for them – road construction and maintenance is paid for out of general taxation.

Incredibly, Confused.com said this afternoon that it was aware that the correct term is VED, but nevertheless chose to phrase its question around the incorrect and misleading ‘road tax’ instead.

Confirmation of that was made on Twitter by Guardian journalist Peter Walker, who had asked the company for an apology for the ‘road tax’ error and tweeted its reply.

Confused.com told him: “We are fully aware of VED, but our research has found road tax is still most common term people use today when referring to VED. As we appeal to a mass audience, we wanted to use the term that resonates most, and on this occasion it was road tax."

The fact is that most adult cyclists are motorists and therefore already pay VED; in any event, with zero emissions, even if VED did apply to bicycles, they would be zero-rated in line with the least polluting cars.

The company further undermines its own research by ignoring the fact that drivers and cyclists are often one and the same person, not helped by the language employed, such as talking about “both cyclists and car owners” as well as referring to “what sends cyclists into a ‘two-wheel tantrum’ and turns car drivers ‘cyclo-pathic’.”

If you really do need to find out the answers to those questions, by the way, you’ll find the press release in full at the end of this article as well as on the Confused.com website.

It’s hard to conceive of how Confused.com could have got it so spectacularly wrong.

After all, commissioning surveys is a tried and tested PR tactic; ask a few questions of your sample, ideally on some controversial issues, whack out a press release that highlights the key findings, and hope that the press, whether national local or specialist, runs the story and gets people talking about it.

Well, Confused.com has certainly managed to do that, but not in the way the marketing types who gave the press release the green light would have envisaged; indeed, the whole episode leaves one with the feeling that if anyone’s confused, it’s not the target consumer faced with myriad competing insurance products, but the company itself.

Moreover, if when drawing up the campaign, the company was hoping to get some TV airtime, the message is 'be careful what you wish for' - we understand that it will be featured on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff tomorrow morning, when no doubt much mirth will be generated around its name.

Today's furore comes just two weeks after we reported how car price aggregator website CarBuzz was being held up as an example of a business that does acknowledge that cyclists and motorists have a right to share the road, and which points out to drivers how they can be more considerate around bike riders.

Amid the storm provoked by Confused.com’s mistakes, the central message underpinning the campaign got lost, which is a great pity, because it did have a laudable objective – to raise awareness of road rage issues during National Road Safety Week.

The press release even included a quote from Malcolm Shepherd, chief executive of Sustrans, although the sustainable transport charity is not mentioned as having been involved in the research at all.

“The truth is that most people use different forms of transport to get about, be it driving a car, riding a bike or being a pedestrian,” he said.

“People need to be more considerate and aware of all other users when making their journeys. Cyclists are among the most vulnerable groups of road users, so when cycling it is important to look after yourself by being visible and positioning yourself correctly on the road. Drivers need to be aware of cyclists on the road and make sure they treat those on bikes with the same consideration they would other road users.”

You can watch a longer interview with Mr Shepherd carried out by Confused.com below.

Another excellent feature of the campaign is this video, in which a driver in Bristol who swapped his car for a bike to undertake his commute narrates his experience.

Returning to the survey and accompanying press release, as PR gaffes go, it’s perhaps not quite up there in the Gerald Ratner league, but it’s not far behind; moreover, it’s one that, presumably to the delight of its meerkat-marketed and tenor-touted rivals, leaves Confused.com itself looking a very confused dotcom.

CONFUSED.COM PRESS RELEASE

‘Cyclo-paths’ and ‘two-wheel tantrums’!

- Confused.com reveals the danger of cycle rage –

•  ‘Cycle rage’ grips the UK: Confused.com reveals danger with new mapping tool
• A quarter of drivers say cyclists should pay road tax
• More than one in eight cyclists have been knocked off their bike by a motorist

Cyclist and motorist rage is in the spotlight this Road Safety Week (21-27 November 2011), and both cyclists and car owners have strong feelings about how to handle it according to car insurance comparison site, Confused.com.

Both cyclists and motorists are turning to social media to report incidents of road related anger with Confused.com identifying 2,674 tweets mentioning both ‘road rage’ and ‘cyclist’ during the first nine months of this year. In response to this emerging danger,

Confused.com has created an interactive map that both cyclists and drivers can use to pinpoint rage blackspots.

A survey of 1,000 motorists and 1,000 cyclists carried out by Confused.com identifies what sends cyclists into a ‘two-wheel tantrum’ and turns car drivers ‘cyclo-pathic’:

72% of drivers have experienced one or more of the following incidents involving a cyclist during the last two years, broken down as follows:

• A cyclist caused me to swerve in my car [31%]
• A cyclist slowed down my journey and made me late [22%]
• A cyclist caused an accident which I was involved in [5%]
• Someone I know was involved in an accident involving a cyclist [11%]
• A cyclist went through red lights [39%]
• Cyclists riding on the pavement or in an area with a 'no cycling' sign [26%]

46% of drivers say that they are sometimes annoyed by cyclists being on the road and they have suggested some ways to handle them (drivers were permitted to choose more than one solution):

A quarter (25%) of these drivers are keen to see cyclists pay road tax meanwhile 14% of angry drivers want to see cyclists displaying number plates on their bikes. Getting cyclists to pass a version of the driving test before they can ride on the road is a popular idea with 44% of annoyed motorists, while 43% say that they would like to see cyclists taking out a form of insurance in case they cause a collision. Catching those who cycle through red lights was seen as the top solution with 59% of car drivers saying they’d like to see cyclists caught for doing this. Almost one third of motorists (31%) feel that cycling on the pavement (which the Highway Code states is illegal) should be stopped.

Meanwhile, almost a quarter of cyclists have been beeped at or sworn at by a motorist and more than one in eight have been knocked off their bike by a motorist. Over the last 2 years cyclists had the following unpleasant experiences:

• 13% have been knocked off their bike by a motorist
• 24% have been sworn at or beeped at by a motorist
• 14% say they have been run off the road by a motorist
• 11% were hit by a car door being opened
• 4% were CHASED by a motorist

65% of cyclists told Confused.com that they are feeling less safe than they did a year ago and 34% say they’ve been a victim of road rage.

Cyclists have some suggestions about ways to improve their journeys (cyclists were permitted to suggest more than one solution:

• 28% think cycling on the pavement should be legalised
• 58% suggest that more cycle lanes should be available in the UK
• 25% think that more hire bikes should be available in the UK
• 9% (almost one in ten) suggest that cyclists should be allowed to go through red lights
• 37% would like drivers to stop driving and parking in cycle lanes

Gareth Kloet, Head of Car Insurance at Confused.com: “Rage on the roads is a big problem for both motorists and cyclists and our research shows that both groups have much to complain about. 14% of drivers want to see license plates on bicycles making them more visible on roads. Drivers also need to be tolerant of cyclists taking a prominent position on today’s roads as 13% of cyclists have been knocked off their bike by a motorist.  Whilst both parties can point at differing solutions to help improve road safety, we urge all road users to exercise respect and courtesy as the roads are for everyone and tolerance could save people’s lives.”

Malcolm Shepherd, Chief Executive of Sustrans, the UK charity encouraging people to travel by foot, bike or public transport added its weight to the issue. “The truth is that most people use different forms of transport to get about, be it driving a car, riding a bike or being a pedestrian.

“People need to be more considerate and aware of all other users when making their journeys. Cyclists are among the most vulnerable groups of road users, so when cycling it is important to look after yourself by being visible and positioning yourself correctly on the road. Drivers need to be aware of cyclists on the road and make sure they treat those on bikes with the same consideration they would other road users.”

Have you been involved in a ‘road rage’ incident? Drivers and cyclists can report their experience here: http://www.confused.com/car-insurance/cycle-safety-map For more on the debate, watch our video where one driver swapped his four wheels for two for a week, see how he got on http://www.confused.com/car-insurance/cycle-safety-map/cycling-issues-video

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.