Another week, another road safety film. Step forward, please, the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland.
Here’s the video. Have a watch. Then, in the spirit of completeness, I’ll take a look at each scene in turn.
It’s worth noting, before I begin, that this advert hasn’t been attracting much in the way of vociferous criticism. And, arguably, it has a certain degree of balance and circumspection to it. There have, of course, been plenty of more obviously bad adverts.
But if anything, I find these seemingly benign adverts more troubling. The balance is illusory, the circumspection ephemeral. Scratch the surface and underneath is the same inability to comprehend true equality or see the bigger picture that exists in even the most blatantly partisan of safety campaigns.
And it’s this subconscious undercurrent that means that people with perfectly good intentions exhibit dangerous behaviours – or, at least, don’t fully understand the landscape of risk to which they contribute. It’s this majority of well-meaning people that “soft touch” campaigns like this target, so the tacit message between the lines is actually of great importance.
So, let’s scratch the surface.
Don’t forget, I need to be able to see you, because I can’t hear you.
This one is, frankly, bizarre on several levels. Where to begin?
Let’s begin with the clear implication that hearing people is important in determining that they are there, let alone where they are or what they’re doing. Sound is not something by which you can detect and locate vehicles around you when you’re in a car – it’s not even reliable when you’re on a bike or on foot. If sound was any use, we’d make windows and radios illegal in cars because with those you hear less than someone outside the car wearing in-ear earphones (see point 2 in the conclusions).
The hearing bit is entirely bogus. We’re left with “I need to be able to see you.”
Now, the film is grossly unclear as to whether they’re trying to send the message that it’s road positioning that’s important, or that it’s hi-viz gear. But the press release (which has a few fishy-looking figures in it) sticks the “conspicuous clothing” boot in, and the dialogue in the film is between two road users side-by-side, where the rider’s primary positioning is less relevant. So – unsurprisingly – the latter seems likely. But the problem is, studies have shown that hi-viz has no effect on passing distances and nor does hi-viz have any effect on collision rates – day or night.
The thing is, people are made of stuff and are visible. The key point should really be that if you can’t see a space is devoid of people then you shouldn’t be driving machinery into it.
Crucially, we need to distinguish between “visible” and “eye-catching”. Hi-viz may – in restricted circumstances – be eye-catching, but everyone (barring those entirely outside of any illumination at night, which is basically only road users with no lights approaching from the side) is visible. The crucial matter is whether people care to look.
Simply being visible is the fundamental requirement. It absolutely should not be a fundamental requirement to be eye-catching - for a number of reasons but not least because, no matter whether anyone believes it makes a difference, the evidence shows that when you measure people’s behaviour and the rate of collisions, it doesn’t.
Don’t forget, I need at least the same space as a car when you pass me.
Sound advice, provided you interpret “space” as the space between the passing car and the nearside kerb rather than the space between the passing car and the vehicle being passed. Sadly, the Highway Code is similarly ambiguous. Still, at least – as with the Highway Code – the imagery clearly suggests the former.
However, the issue here, I think, is that many people will look at this sequence and think, “Why?“
There’s no illustration here of why the cyclist might need this much space. Yet one only has to look at the case of Martyn Uzzell, who was killed when hit by a vehicle as he swerved to avoid a pothole, to see just one of many scenarios that make this a matter of life and death. At least south of the border, in this much better film, the Irish made a limited attempt to illustrate an unexpected (and that should really be unanticipated) event that could necessitate a reaction.
People who make road safety films should remember that people don’t generally respond to words (otherwise maybe they’d respond to the words that demonstrate hi-viz to be of no benefit). We respond more strongly to what we see. What we see here is space not being required. It’s a weak message. People have heard the words repeatedly, without being graphically shown why they should heed it. The Niceway Code made the same mistake.
Where is the hard-hitting tactic used by drink-driving campaigns? If such films have any effect at all (which is debatable) the evidence seems reasonably clear that the only time they’re effective is when they’re shocking. And a sudden death is shocking, whether it’s caused by inebriation or by a pass that allows no margin for unanticipated events. I see no reason to treat sober drivers with kid gloves: it should not be our moral repulsion at drink driving that justifies a strong message, it should be the risk, and the reality of the consequences, that do so.
If New Zealand can manage it, why can’t the UK?
Don’t forget, I need you to check it’s safe before you turn right or change lane.
This sequence, more than any other in the film, exposes at best the problematic nature of all “share the road” campaigns and at worst a quite toxic viewpoint.
These words are voiced by the driver of the car behind the cyclist: I need you to check. I need you to check.
Here we have to really test the film makers’ implied meaning of the word “need”. If you ask me, the real need in this situation is that of the person on the bicycle, who needs not to end up injured or killed – no matter whose fault that is. The driver’s needs, whatever they are, are vastly less significant.
The thing is, the film’s already covered the business of passing someone with sufficient space. So, within a lane, it should already be clear that someone on a bike should be given the full width of that lane. This is not only for swerving round potholes, stray animals, footballs, children, car doors, glass, ice, and so on ad infinitum, but also for the business of turning right. If there’s a right turn ahead then it’s far from unimaginable that someone ahead of you will want to turn into it. Even if they make a foolish manoeuvre in doing so. The Highway Code explicitly disadvises overtaking near a right-hand turn for good reason. If you overtake a car and that happens, it’s an expensive insurance claim; overtake a bicycle and you could have sent someone to the morgue.
Granted, when changing lane the traffic already in the lane has priority and there would be clear fault with anyone moving suddenly into the path of a car in that situation. But within the same lane, as is pictured, that’s not the case. The bicycle is a vehicle whose driver has every bit as much right to the full width of that lane as any other. There is no magic divider which grants a free pass to anyone behind: to pass is to perform an overtaking manoeuvre, just like overtaking a car, which carries all the corresponding responsibilities.
There is only one thing that would make a right turn unsafe for the cyclist, only one reason why anyone would “need them to check that it’s safe”: that’s the car operated by the person voicing that very need. The ability to make it safe lies entirely with them.
The driver doesn’t need anything from anyone else. And that’s the toxic viewpoint: that when you’re at the the wheel of the vehicle that poses the physical danger, you need others to check whether you’re presenting danger. That’s the heart of the problem. Turn it on its head: choose not to present the danger, choose to make it safe, because others may need that from you.
The message here should be from the cyclist: I need you to think “would I overtake a car here?” – and if you wouldn’t, but you decide to pass me, then be very, very sure that no collision can possibly occur.
Don’t forget, it’s dangerous to pass me on the inside. If I’m a truck or bus, I can’t see you at all.
Interesting one, this, and a regular topic of contention. In short, a can of worms, and one I’ll largely leave for now.
One curious point to note here, though, is that whilst the voiceover focuses on trucks and buses, the film shows cars. Now, whilst there are risks with passing stationary traffic to the inside, we should be clear about the associated responsibilities.
It is not illegal to pass stationary traffic on the nearside. Nor is it explicitly disadvised. However, there are risks – but the risks are presented by others. With specific reference to this example, the risky behaviour is the subject of Highway Code rule 239, which clearly states that “you MUST ensure you do not hit anyone when you open your door. Check for cyclists or other traffic“.
There’s no “don’t forget: you mustn’t open your door into the path of anyone, so check in the mirror and over your shoulder” advice in the film, though. Curiously absent, that one. Much easier to advise the minority to sit in exhaust fumes as if they were one of the vehicles causing the congestion in the first place.
Don’t forget, when it’s slippy, I’m even more fragile.
Don’t forget, when it’s slippy, your vehicle will not react as reliably as it will when it’s not slippy.
People are no more or less fragile when it rains: it’s a nonsensical statement. But people do need more room to manoeuvre, to swerve, to hit unnoticed potholes without being run over and killed.
Don’t forget, people are always fragile. They’re not affected by weather; the vehicles are. Account for it.
Don’t forget to watch out for me at junctions.
Well, yes. Don’t forget to read this. When will we see a TV campaign based on that, I wonder?
Don’t forget, I need you to pay attention.
And I need you to do the same.
Indeed. But again, we should underline the fact that one person’s need is greater, and only one person’s choice of vehicle poses a threat to the other.
Don’t forget, I’m human too.
Yeah, but let’s also not forget that one of you’s got a one-ton metal box full of airbags, crumple zones and impact bars, and a big box of combustible vapour that makes that one-ton box go really quickly. It’s kind of a big deal.
On a slight tangent, it’s worth noting that the cyclist has positioned himself extremely unwisely here (which lends weight to my inference above that the film makers are considering hi-viz rather than positioning in the first scene). This position leads to an unavoidable and dangerous merge when setting off. If he had positioned himself in the middle of the outside lane, he wouldn’t have to rely on the improbably gallant behaviour of the driver alongside.
Perhaps that should have been the image, with the message, “Don’t forget: one human’s safety is more important than another human’s convenience.”
Share the road. Respect everyone’s journey.
And there’s the rub. As I’ve noted before, “share the road” campaigns always fall into the same trap: the belief that if you’re sending a set of messages to one set of road users, you have to send an equivalent set of messages to another.
This campaign clearly implies that the journeys – made by the combination of the person and the vehicle – are equivalent, and thus by extension it implies that person-plus-car and person-plus-bicycle are equivalent. They are not. And this is, once more, the crucial failing. The authors of the messages wilfully blind themselves to the fundamental inequality of danger due to people’s choice of kinetic energy and base the whole campaign not on danger, but on diplomacy.
And so, because of diplomacy, we must respect each other’s journey. Not each other’s safety.
Diplomacy, not a basic right to protection.
And diplomacy is influenced by power. You want safety? Then be nice to the people who pose the physical threat to your safety. You don’t want to be injured or killed because someone chose a fast, heavy, mechanically-propelled vehicle? Then appease them.
Hence the film makes a big deal of the negotiations at the change of the lights, but that’s then followed by the car being driven way too close to the cyclist – throwing out half of the advice given throughout the film. Diplomacy important; safety, not so much.
No matter how many saccharine, smiling, nodding, what-planet-are-we-really-on-anyway faces you care to show in a film, the premise that the respect should be for the journey, or that everyone should have to individually trade their rights to safety, is an unsustainable, impotent, inegalitarian bullshit message.
To base road behaviours on diplomacy is undeniably to state that safety is not a fundamental right.
Don’t respect the journey. Respect the person.
Whilst I’ll stand by all the above, I’m arguably being a little harsh, so let me point out that this “cycling skills” document by Northern Ireland’s DOE and DRD is, in the context of existing laws and infrastructure, full of Good Stuff. Remarkably for a document by any institution, let alone a government one, it clearly points out the limited value of helmets, highlights the importance of behaviour over protective equipment, alludes to the additional risks that the UK’s poor cycle lanes and tracks present, and so on. It is surprisingly enlightened and pragmatic, and is far more in line with standard cycle training than it is with any road safety campaign message. Bravo.