06 December 2009

Danger! Risk! Menace!

Tell you what is dangerous these days: entrust journalists with the results of scientific research, especially if it involves emotive but little understood subjects - like climate change and, er, cycling...

Let's start from the end. I'm watching the morning news as I get ready and - oops! - the BBC is covering cycling! Surely, surely, the BBC who devote so much time and attention to climate change, subtly supporting those who care about it, will say nice things about cycling? But alas, no: they've picked up on 'scientific research' that 'proves' that cycling is more dangerous than driving.

For the sake of impartiality they interview a few random cyclists - we don't get to hear the question put to them, but the consensus amongst them seems to be - as edited - "yeah, cycling is pretty scary, what with all them cars and traffic, like". As the BBC are not just impartial but a saintly thorough lot, they need a quote from someone 'official' - cue a Sustrans volunteer, who tries to explain that the more cyclists there are the safer it is. This is true, and is what for instance CTC argue tirelessly - but he forgets to say (or the BBC remembers to edit out) that for all the perceived risk of cycling, there are huge benefits etc etc.

When the recorded report ends, it's back to studios and we have the live presenters 'completing' the picture by reading viewers emails - the usual rants about how cyclists are a damned race of road hooligans, in stark contrasts with holy drivers who never ever break the speed limit or push their way through an amber/red light. Thank you, Auntie Beeb: you've just caused a few people to abandon cycling, increasing their cardiac risk and impoverishing their lives.

The Guardian picked up the story - they are a little bit more balanced: at least their headline makes it clear where they stand, ie if cycling is more dangerous than driving then it needs to be made easier and safer for the benefit of everyone. Commendable, innit?

But hang on a minute. It is clear, when you read the Guardian article, that the research quoted seems to lump pedestrians and cyclists together in most instances. They are looking at what kind of cases arrived at A&E departments in UK hospitals.... between 1999 and 2004 (so, not exactly current,is it?). I've only had access to the abstract (I wonder if the BBC journalist who started this read much more) and in it the objective of the research is stated as "To report on seasonal variation in hospital admissions for traffic injuries to car and truck occupants, motorcyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians". It concludes that, while for car occupants seasonal variations are not significant, cyclists appear to have a harder time in winter. In passing the abstract remarks that "From April to September, there were more admissions for pedestrians and cyclists in England (44 875 in the six years of the study) than for car occupants (34 582)".

The italics are mine. In short, this is a non-story - and I can see someone, somewhere, being rattled by it, staying off their bikes and missing out on the benefits to their health, just because some stupid BBC journo (but I repeat myself) spotted a news angle in a piece of science they neither understood nor cared about. All paid by the TV licence-fee payers - us, ze pipol o'brittn.

1 comment:

coco said...

Just to add to my latest post: a recent debate in one of Parliament's committees touched on road safety - and it deals with pedestrians and cyclists in the same category of 'vulnerable' road users. An interesting if grim stat: 6 pedestrian deaths, roughly, per cyclist death. I know, it's not just about absolute numbers, but why are newspapers not clamouring for pedestrian safety?