The Horse and The Python

Last week on the Nice Way Code website, in response to the bizarre half-launch, someone called Neil speculated that “it’s going to get even more patronising and even worse“; to which, someone on behalf of the campaign responded: “You’ll have to wait and see I suppose. Remember – you haven’t actually seen the campaign yet!

Well, now we can see it (at least, we can see two TV ads; there may well be more to come). So let’s take a look.

The TV ads

There are two ads. One addresses the issue of people on bikes ignoring red lights; the other asks people in cars to take more care around people on bikes.

The logic to releasing these together is quite obvious. The supposed balance between the two is quite clearly reflecting the campaign’s stated ethos: that change from one group of road users will come only if there is some sort of concession made by another group.

This reinforces the very clear message that perceived groups of road users – with those groups defined by the mode of transport they’ve arbitrarily chosen – is what the campaign focuses on. Groups are collectively responsible and, as is intractably true given that responsibility, collectively culpable.

Which sucks. But anyway – let’s watch the ads.

The horse

The first ad I watched is entitled “Think Horse”:

The basic premise is quite simple: Treat a cyclist as you would a horse.

On the face of it, you can sort of see some logic there. As a driver, you might fear the weight of a horse crashing into a windscreen (whereas getting a cyclist in your windscreen can actually be a mitigating factor if you are prosecuted for a fatal collision – no, really).

However, this business of “on the face of it, you can sort of see some logic” is skin-deep. It’s symptomatic of this campaign’s entire output that once you start bringing some statistics to this party, the champagne goes flat and someone finds that people have been stubbing out their roll-ups in the toaster.

You see, people on bicycles are killed at a rate of roughly 120 per year in the UK. But horses are killed too. If we take figures purely for horses with riders (ie ignoring the significant numbers of deaths to roaming animals such as those on Dartmoor or in the New Forest – oddly enough an area where there is some militant opposition to cyclists on the premise that they harm animals, which is a pertinent reminder of how perception of groups very often does not reflect facts and statistics) then road collisions account for around 8 riders and 19 horses per year – and the British Horse Society feel these figures (though presumably not the rider deaths) are under-reported.

So, using the most optimistic figures possible, around one sixth as many ridden horses as cyclists are killed per year. Feeling safer? Well, even if you are, factor in distance travelled (ideally numbers of passing vehicles) in order to get a fairer fatality rate. Now, I’ll confess I’ve not managed to find the total number of miles travelled on horseback per year in the UK (if anyone has such information I’d be grateful for it) but I’m going to bet good money it’s a whole heap less than a sixth of that travelled by bicycle. Moreover, I’m also willing to bet that horses are generally ridden on relatively quiet country roads rather than busier urban and suburban roads, meaning there are fewer passes across which to normalise the figures. Add back in the deaths of roaming horses and the scales tip even more heavily.

Whichever way you slice it, in terms of fatality rates, horses seem to actually get a significantly worse deal than cyclists.

So, if you use a bicycle, do you want to be treated like a horse? Like this horse?

Hell, no. I suspect you want to be treated as a person. A person on a bike is a person just like the person in the car. Isn’t this campaign supposed to be about harmony? (Yes, it is; The Nice Way Code have explicitly stated that it is.) So why on earth state that we should all categorise people who choose one specific mode of transport and then view them as if they are not even human? The advert is basically saying that people will be more likely to have respect for fellow human beings’ safety if they imagine that they’re not actually human at all. Why on earth is it endorsing that view? Is that the best that people on bikes can hope for? That we should treat them like we do an animal that we beat with a crop, use to pull carriages and make lasagne out of? I can think of no more reasonable response to this suggestion than: fuck that.

Why isn’t the campaign emphasising that someone on a bike might be your mother, your son, your friend, someone like you who wants to get home alive? Why is it emphasising the exact opposite? “They’re not like you! They’re not even the same species!”

Alright, enough of that aspect. There are more.

The campaign promised us “humorous” content and I suppose it delivers on that front. The surrealist joke that underpins it is fair enough, although personally I think it’s a bit tired (there are more accurate analogies, but the material means my mind keeps leaning to Big Train’s “Showjumpers“).

Will the humour deliver any effect? I don’t personally believe for one moment that it will, but that’s my opinion. Who am I to presuppose the actual result? We’d need data to be collected. Unfortunately it’d be virtually impossible to measure; and, besides, this campaign is keeping its metrics very close to its chest at this point. We know nothing of the data they started out with or will measure success on.

But let’s compare this video with one produced in Ireland:

The Irish video is all ham, no spam. It’s chock-full of information covering multiple scenarios, every single one of them safety-focused. Its presentation is clear, illustrative, and shows both perspectives side by side. It’s not patronising, it doesn’t dumb down, and it doesn’t try to be clever either. Granted, it won’t win any fashionable awards in between toilet snorts at a creative media awards gig, but who cares? Its message is bang-on.

(Ironically, the Irish video was was funded by the broadly-scoped Road Safety Authority and was met with strong and widespread support from cyclists; whilst The Nice Way Code is being funded from a sustainable transport budget and is being panned left, right and centre by the very people who are the intended beneficiaries of that budget.)

The Nice Way Code ad, on the other hand, moves its message to the final 6 seconds of the 40-second video. The first 34 seconds are just entertainment. Yes, it’s designed to stick in people’s minds, but I can’t see how it’s more (or even as) effective at this than, say, a stationary monochrome image of a crushed bicycle. It’s all creative and no material. (This time I’m reminded more of Armando Iannucci’s “We’re So Good at Television“.)

So, with the 6 seconds of footage we have to play with, let’s see what it contains.

We see a woman on a bicycle being passed safely by a car. There are a couple very notable features of this scene which are highly commendable: namely that the woman is free of hi-viz clothing and a helmet. These features absolutely help to portray cycling as a safe, normal activity. Bravo! More of this, please.

To the car, then. The pass is safe: slow and wide. Good. (It would be one hell of a dropped bollock if they’d got this bit wrong, after all.) I’m a bit bemused as to why the driver fixes his gaze on the cyclist for the duration of the pass, rather than looking ahead, which ought to be safer (move back across when your mirror and a subsequent shoulder check show that you’re a safe distance past, please) – but maybe I’m nitpicking.

The thing is, though, that the pass takes place on a wide and empty road. The car does not cross the central white line and there is no oncoming traffic. This is rarely a scenario where drivers actually present danger to the cyclist. So although the message is reasonable, the moving illustration does not really do much to reinforce why the message is needed.

So there we have Think Horse. It’s got some good elements; but it’s very short on content, what content it has is limp, and it asks people to generalise and dehumanise their fellows in a manner that is pretty objectionable and for which there is no evidence that a safety benefit exists.

In short, I think it’s pretty dire.

Name

The second video is called “Name”.

Let’s get one arguably trivial thing out of the way first: the joke is stolen wholesale from Monty Python’s “Election Night Special“. It’s not really relevant to the safety issue, but when your campaign seems to be 95% creative and 5% content, it’s disappointing to see that the creative element isn’t more imaginative. If you a want to produce – and I quote – a “groundbreaking” campaign, maybe doing a smash-and-grab on a 45-year-old gag isn’t the best way to do it.

So, to the more important aspects of this ad.

Oh, boy. Where to begin?

First, let’s grab a frame from that video.

name-grab

It wouldn’t be possible to show a more marginal transgression if you’d tried. The front of the cyclist’s front wheel is over the white stop line at the exact point that the light changes from amber to red. Is this even red light jumping, or is it amber gambling? Ok, either way it’s a daft thing to do on a bike, but the timing is so contrived that it’s frankly just taking the piss.

Does anyone honestly think car drivers don’t do this at least as much as cyclists, if not more? Stand at any set of traffic lights and you will see people driving cars through the amber-red transition just like this. A lot of them. I mean a lot.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and hypothesise that people on bikes don’t jump lights like this (the “sod it, I’m as good as there” move) as much as people in cars do. A car will generally make it across the junction in less time, meaning less risk of another phase starting before being clear, and besides, there are side impact bars and airbags.

I’m not denying that some people jump the lights when they’re on bikes, but – speaking anecdotally, so I’m happy to be shot down by properly gathered data – it’s a different type of jumping. Cyclists tend to go just before the lights go green, rather than just before they go red. They tend to watch for when the other phases end and try to get as much of the junction out of the way before the traffic behind them catches them. They’re inventing an advanced phase where none currently exists (it is one of the pieces of urban infrastructure that is often cited as a relatively straightforward improvement for cycle safety).

If the campaign aims to broaden understanding, then why does it seem not to think about the actual mental processes involved in what people do? I’m not saying that any red light jumping is more or less legal than any other, or even that any is more or less objectionable to onlookers than others; I’m saying let’s at least try to understand something before we simply point at it and grunt “Duh! Bad!

Yes, some people do jump lights – on bikes and in cars – because they are selfish idiots; but a very significant number of those who do so on bikes do it because, rightly or wrongly, they feel it is safer.

Why not explain, to those for whom it is quite understandably far from obvious, why these people don’t feel safe? (Hell, we could even have a go at changing some infrastructure to make those people feel safe enough not to feel they should break the law. But I do accept there is a worthwhile place for some spending on breaking down cultural/psychological barriers. It just needs to be done properly.)

To the next troubling aspect, then: the idea – rather, the very clear endorsement of the idea – that all people on bikes get a bad name because some people on bikes jump lights. I’m going to reuse my earlier response: fuck that.

I ride responsibly, believe me. If someone decides that my safety is less important because they once saw someone else jump a light then any even vaguely reasonable campaign would address that cancerous attitude rather than tell me not to jump lights. (I don’t jump lights! How many times do I have to tell you?) I have nothing I can give. I’m all out. I do everything I can for my safety first and foremost, and secondarily for the safety and convenience of other road users around me. Where do I fit in? You’re asking me to sit around waiting for everyone else – at least those that happen to be on a bike, since you don’t seem to give a toss about cars jumping red lights – to be fully compliant before you’ll accept that people in cars should be listening to you? It’s a deeply offensive message, but more importantly it’s doomed from the start. It will not have any effect.

Even putting all that side, even if someone were to ride like a total pillock, how would that justify someone endangering them? People make mistakes. People sometimes have to dodge potholes or ice or glass or cats or car doors at the last minute. We accept that under-18s, of whom we have totally different social expectations, ride bicycles on the road. Some people are just a bit fast and loose with the law – just like lots of drivers speed, use the phone, eat pasties, park on double yellows… it happens. But to translate any of these things into some sort of justification for not giving a hoot about whether someone is injured or killed because you passed them too closely is a seriously sociopathic disorder on the part of the driver who does it. Why is this not considered more worthy of attack than someone who’s simply being a bit crap?

By implementing a system or a social standard whereby we respect other people’s safety over and above our opinion of how rigidly they adhere to traffic law, we would all become safer. This is what The Nice Way Code explicitly states as an aim: for us all to become safer through changing how we look at each other on the road. It is absurd to do it by reinforcing the attitude of “well, that guy’s ignoring the rules, so bollocks to his safety and to that of everyone who’s on two wheels” when the way to achieve it is the exact opposite: to make sure people see real, live, human beings just like them, and place their physical safety first and only then be concerned with their attitude to red lights. This is why everyone sees this campaign as blaming victims: it is reinforcing the very prejudices and harmful attitudes that it should be blaming instead.

Spent

You know what? I’m out of energy slating “Name”. This one will get pummeled endlessly on Twitter, Facebook and forums everywhere. I think it’s more important to highlight the failings of the less-obviously harmful “Nice Horse”, and of the campaign as a whole.

To everyone behind this campaign, I know from the open, candid and well-reasoned responses to the previous article that you have people’s best interests at heart, but – I’m sorry – the product is truly painful to observe. I’d almost like to employ the parent’s perennial phrase, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed” – but I can’t. I’m both.

You asked us to be patient. You asked us to wait for the full campaign. You asked us to stop judging it on the basis of its appalling launch collateral and wait for the real content.

I, for one, waited.

And I feel betrayed.

19 thoughts on “The Horse and The Python”

  1. Well written piece and have to agree 100% with your critique. I did read the comments on your last piece and was hopeful of something more than what we’ve been given – disappointed and angry now… This puts the totally sound objective of “let’s all get along” and “respect all road users” back rather than takes it forward.

    Why do I give a horse space when I pass it on a bike or car; I’d rather not get a hoof in the face or one of my near side panels thank you very much. And let’s not justify the red light jumping with some Australian research on perceptions as has been done…. Perhaps someone needs to run a study as to how many cyclists are killed by jumping red lights?

    Anyway, you’ve presented the arguments far better than I ever could and we can only hope that the politicians and civil servants are taking note and reviewing the PR / design consultant’s contract for this…..

    1. I would hope you and other car drivers take care when passing horses for other reasons too. Horses easily get startled, and a startled horse is no good at all. So please be careful and avoid acting unpredictably when overtaking or meeting horses, also if you are not within kicking distance.

  2. That this campaign is about road safety is deeply ironic given the week-long, slow motion car crash that it has been so far. From the jaw-droppingly cringe-inducing lollipop launch to the anodine, incredibly ill-informed and offensive horse advert, it has been painful to watch.

    If it was by or about anybody else, I might laugh, but this is cycling money being washed down the drain by Cycling Scotland. Bravo.

    I guess the only ones laughing are those that got handsomely paid to come up with this – they probably couldn’t believe it when their ideas got accepted at the pitch meeting. Maybe they laced the cupcakes or spiked the fizzy water so that Cycling Scotland would sign off on it?

  3. The niceway Twitter, brought to you by Cycling Scotland, says it is here to “start the conversation about how we use the road”.

    Newsflash: the conversation has been going on for ages, it’s just that the Niceway campaign has joined in late and has missed most of what has already been said and now they’re just repeating what has been discussed and dismissed already.

    It’s what happens when you commission this kind of thing from people who are a bit naive. They think they are the first ones to come up with a groundbreaking campaign which will definitely work. It’s going to be groundbreaking, absolutely (groundbreaking – a word as overused and meaningfless as “nice”). The rest of us think, oh no, here we go again – it didn’t work last time, or the time before, or the time before that. Bang goes £450,000 on yet more of the same tripe about cyclists going through red lights.

    That said, the horse thing was a new one on me. I call it scraping the barrel for ways of spending government dosh whilst simultaneously making sure what you do is as ineffectual as possible. After all, we wouldn’t want to do anything that would scare those horses, by which I mean anything that stands a chance of actually making a difference. No, let’s blow £400k by showing how creative and imaginative we can be and get to spend a day making a funny film. Bonus cheques all round.

  4. Bang on – and you might have a strap line for that Nice Horse one – “Drive too close and spook a horse, and it could easily kick in your windows – drive too close and spook a cyclist and chances are they’ll do the same”

    So on our cyclist is on West George Street heading down from CS offices on Blyteswood Square – on a typical weekday you would NEVER be to sole vehicle going downhill – but of course if this had been filmed in ‘real’ traffic conditions the cyclist would probably have had a bus flying though on the nearside and a couple of cars crossing the line in the seconds following her own ‘transgression’

    Anyone fancy making a ‘real world’ version of this clip? You’d find a source for cyclists capable of riding with great precision just a block over at Rig in West Regent Street.

  5. Bang-on, all true, little more to be said about this, thanks for writing the post. I’d just like to know when the cycling-related organisations backing this campaign are going to get out and disown it. I’d like them to do that now, please.

  6. I just wish there was more than two red lights on my way to work so that I could say ‘fuck you’ by riding through them. If I’m being judged as though I did it, I might as well get the little time advantage by doing it. But I know I wouldn’t.

  7. How many urban drivers remember the bit about horses in the Highway Code? I learned to drive in the New Forest, but even then, I took my test in Bournemouth, where failing due to unexpected horse was not common. Most urban and suburban drivers see more cyclists than they do horses, what’s wrong with a campaign that says “see cyclist, think ‘I don’t want to squash her’”?

  8. Horses: used by the police for crowd control, when they need two-way visibility and an intimidating physical presence. Bicycles: used by the police when they want to be quick but to still be able to engage at human/pedestrian level.

  9. There is some Australian research into the frequency of red light infringement (6.9% non compliant and most of those were left turns) https://www.bicyclenetwork.com.au/media/vanilla/file/MUARC%20red%20running.pdf and a separate study into the the self reported reasons for non-compliance: http://www.gracq.be/files/uploads/NEWS-2013-04/EtudeFeuRouge.pdf

    This is a summary of the second article:
    http://www.monash.edu.au/news/show/why-do-cyclists-run-red-lights

    No mention of horses though.

  10. Beyond the Kerb, please consider becoming the next Transport Minister, these two blog posts have made more sense than the entire combined output of government waffle and nonsense since I was old enough to join the Tufty Club.

  11. Some other issue with the Python ad: If you’re going to tell cyclists not to run red lights, do it for the right reason. Because it’s dangerous, because it disturbs the flow of traffic or whatever. Not because ‘it gives people a bad name’. Oh, and it should be a crime to base jokes that are decidedly unfunny on Monty Python sketches.

  12. Asking why cyclists jump red lights reminds me of
    http://www.rudi.net/node/16395
    “Women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by a lorry because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and wait at junctions in the driver’s blind spot, according to a study.”
    TFL have published a RLJ survey that tends to support the difference in behaviour by gender .
    http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/traffic-note-8-cycling-red-lights.pdf
    “men are slightly more likely to violate red lights (17% compared to 13%)”
    It doesn’t seem clear enough to explain the difference in dangers, so there may well be other factors.

  13. Great analysis. The thing about cyclists ‘inventing’ their own advanced phase at the lights – this is very true, it’s definitely a different type of red light jumping. The ASLs aren’t great and they hardly make a difference. I’d love to see some Dutch style low-level bicycle lights that will give people on bikes a few seconds head start. I know they’re piloting a few in London at the moment, I guess we’ll see how they pan out

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