The government THINK! campaign is fairly unambiguously named. It implores us to do one thing: THINK!
But, to copy a set of decisions laid out before you; to take them at face value; is that to THINK?
What are we being taught to THINK? Are we even being taught to THINK! at all?
THINK! recently promoted a film via Twitter. I confess to having been quite confused as to its provenance. The production quality is so high, and the storytelling device so well-aligned with many road safety campaigns, that I thought it was an official film. Indeed, it’s been branded in the closing credits by Somerset Road Safety Partnership, a government initiative. (Edit: the film in its current form isn’t officially endorsed; please see this response for a definitive statement on that.)
However, whilst it’s quite unclear exactly what involvement professional road safety teams had in its making (Edit: or at least, it was when I first wrote this), the film is fundamentally the product of students. And while I’ll gladly admit to any error in misunderstanding the film’s provenance, the fact that it could easily pass as an official film is quite telling.
Anyway, have a watch.
The way in which this film is constructed is totally unambiguous. Two alternative realities, side by side. One ends in a tragic collision, the other is perfectly safe and uneventful: the Unsafe Reality and the Safe Reality.
And so the message, delivered through this storytelling device so often used in road safety campaigns, is equally unambiguous: Choose the Safe Reality. Make these decisions. THINK!
What to do
Take note of the decisions that are very clearly portrayed in the Safe Reality. There are three: the use of a rear light (yes, just a rear light; we’ll come back to that), the use of a brightly-coloured vest, and the use of a helmet. Rear light, bright vest, helmet. They’re the sole differences between choosing Safe Reality or Unsafe Reality.
Now let’s take a closer look at the incident (or would-be incident, for all you Safe Reality dwellers) which is portrayed.
What to see
The teenager on the bicycle is riding along an unlit rural road. He approaches a junction, illuminated by a street light, where a driver is looking to pull out from a side road. The driver needs to look to his right to check for approaching traffic.
The unsurprising happens: in the Unsafe Reality there is a collision and in the Safe Reality there is not.
But wait a moment. Let’s take a look at a couple of frames from the film.
Here’s the scene just before the cyclist appears. Nothing is visible up the road in either reality, because in neither case did our cyclist choose to use a front light.
Now let’s look again, just a moment later. Remember: Safe Reality is on the Right, Unsafe Reality is on the left.
Now we can see that the cyclist in the Safe Reality is visible, whilst the cyclist in the Unsafe Reali…
Um… The cyclist in the Unsafe Reality is visible as well.
Actually, he’s at least as visible as the one in the Safe Reality.
Maybe that’s because the guy in the Safe Reality didn’t bother with a front light either…? And maybe the vest doesn’t actually make any difference…?
Hang on, though. This is getting confusing. I mean, the film was supposed to be unambiguous. The guy in the Unsafe Reality is an idiot, right? It’s his fault that he got hit. He made the wrong decisions. He chose Unsafe Reality. All he can expect is to be mown down and left on the tarmac with his wheel spinning. I know we could see him – yes, yes, he’s visible - but he wasn’t safe. Doesn’t matter if you’re visible, you need a yellow vest to be safe. And a polystyrene hat.
Where to look
Hopefully you’ve noticed that in Safe Reality the driver is looking towards oncoming traffic, whilst in Unsafe Reality he isn’t. I mean, it seems kinda obvious once you freeze the motion.
Thing is, that’s what’s making the difference between Safe Reality and Unsafe Reality. The cyclist is equally visible in both cases: the difference is whether or not the driver looks.
Yet the message remains doggedly about cycling accessories which, certainly in this scenario, demonstrably don’t aid visibility one tiny bit.
What to focus on
Let’s return to that issue of the front light. Curiously, one of the students who made the video commented below it that “filming the bike head on with a front light obscured the bike and rider, distracting from the other messages of having a rear light, helmet and reflective clothing“. Astonishingly, the front light was omitted precisely because of its visibility: as if a bright light moving along the road is somehow completely unrelated to the likelihood that there is a person somewhere close behind it.
The underlines one of the key aspects of contemporary road safety education, which is to focus on – and have faith in – the paraphernalia at the exclusion of other aspects. It’s a form of tunnel vision, focusing on things that are supposed to address an arbitrary problem, rather than on the actual problem that needs to be addressed.
Thus here the aim is to promote the use of a rear light, a bright vest (the one used in the video is not reflective) and a helmet. This aim is – despite its irrelevance to the events played out – pursued with such zeal that other aspects are cast aside, including the one thing that would actually help.
Here’s the real point, then: I don’t want to be critical of the students’ work per se – as I say, it passes entirely convincingly for a professional road safety film – but the fact that students are constructing their films in this way is symptomatic of road safety campaigns’ attitudes. They’re copying how the professionals do it. They’re thinking the way the professionals want them to THINK!
People have been conditioned to focus on the light, the vest, the helmet. They’re good, right? They’ll protect you. We can concoct any old scenario, one in which none of these are actually pertinent, and they’ll still work. That’s the message. And that message not only gets the rubber stamp of the government’s road safety campaign for Somerset, it gets the promotion of the government’s national THINK! campaign.
Who to blame
Here’s an example of the conditioning that leads to this thinking. This video – there are more here – is from the THINK! campaign’s “Tales of The Road” sub-campaign, which is aimed at 6-11 year olds. (Start ‘em young…)
In case you’re watching without sound, here’s the poem that’s read out in the film:
She always liked to look her best / So didn’t wear a nice bright vest / Or any clothing that was bright / When she was out at nearly night
But traffic couldn’t see her, see / And now she isn’t so trendy / A car drive right into her guts / And covered her with bruisy cuts
A lovely message to send to a 6-year old, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Just as with the students’ film, the behaviour of the driver is ignored. In fact, it’s far worse. The campaign can’t even bring itself to admit that there is someone controlling the car.
The traffic couldn’t see her.
A car drove into her guts.
Despite the fact that the girl is shown in the beams of a car’s headlamps, the driver of the car is completely absolved of responsibility to see her; in fact the driver is completely airbrushed from the narrative. It’s the traffic that couldn’t see. It’s the car that hits her. It’s her fault for not wearing bright clothing. It’s not the driver’s fault for being unable to stop for things which are in front of, and illuminated by, the vehicle that he or she is supposedly controlling.
And recall the frame from the video above, which shows just how effective bright clothing is. It isn’t – even when the light becomes marginal. Yet this is touted as the solution. Kids should ditch any aspirations to “look their best”, and choose a yellow vest.
Well, we can see that the vest’s ineffective, so only one conclusion remains: Once the victim has obeyed the instructions and worn the uniform of the damned, the collision can be written off as one of those things.
We did all we could.
People – wait, sorry – cars just drive into people.
Still, at least you wore a vest, so whilst you’re in hospital you can at least be reassured that whilst we won’t be blaming anyone in the car, we won’t be blaming you, either. You did your bit. Well done. What do you mean, “why is this still happening?”
Again: promoting faith in trinkets, failing to identify the source of danger, ignoring the key protagonist. Placing the responsibility and the blame upon the victim by exhorting them to use tools which do not solve the problem, instead of exhorting those with the lethal vehicles to change their behaviour. Those people are viewed as being their vehicles. And you can’t change a vehicle’s behaviour, because it has none of its own.
What to THINK!
All of this is flawed. Deeply flawed. All of this encourages flawed thinking, because it’s the product of flawed thinking.
It encourages people on bicycles to THINK! that things like vests and helmets will stop people driving into them. The message in the first film makes one thing starkly clear: other than the use of accessories, there is no behavioural difference between Safe Reality and Unsafe Reality. The film encourages people to THINK! that their behaviour is entirely unimportant.
At the same time, it encourages people in cars to THINK! that if they drive into anyone who’s not festooned with accessories then it’s not really their fault, but that of the person they hit – even if they’re actually every bit as visible as those with accessories.
And it encourages all of us to THINK! that the victims are to blame; that collisions just happen; that a road user is defined more by what you see – the human or the shell of the vehicle – than by where the brain lies, and that responsibility is apportioned accordingly.
And none of these groups should be encouraged to THINK! in these deeply dangerous ways.
By way of a coincidence, yesterday I experienced the exact scenario in the first film. Riding along a road, a driver approached from a side road to my left. He failed to look, failed to see me, and continued straight into the road just as I was passing.
I was using an excellent front light; I had reflective material on my frame, fork, tyres, rear rack, messenger bag, gloves and jacket. The road was fully illuminated, unlike the scene in the video. Yet still I was not seen.
So, whilst lights are legally required and useful, and reflective material is useful, they have zero effect against a driver who does not THINK!
Fortunately I’ve survived the roads long enough to THINK! about ensuring I have a full lane to use for evasive manoeuvres whenever possible, and to THINK! that every car near me on the road has my number on it. So this time I was able to avoid the car and a collision.
Instead of teaching people to use accessories, stubbornly ignoring their relevance to any danger which is likely to come their way, we should be teaching vulnerable users to THINK! about anticipating every driver error and to THINK! about their escape strategy for every error that should actually unfold.
But, far more importantly, we should be teaching drivers how to THINK! about looking.
Hopefully the people at THINK! might, with some persuasion, THINK! of better ways for us all to THINK!
If you’ve managed to get this far, you may want to skim these: first, a study that shows hi-viz has no effect on passing distances; and second, a study that shows hi-viz has no effect on collision involvement rates.