Deconstructing the truckers’ defence (part one)

IMAGE: Cyclists don’t belong on the road is a common narrative, especially when safety measures such as a 1.5 metre passing distance is proposed.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Verona Murphy, president of the Irish Road Hauliers’ Association, is very good at her job. When the cyclist fatality figure passed the total for 2016 in the middle of 2017, her job was to protect the interests of the people she represents – truckers – in the media coverage that followed. She did this beautifully.

If you analyse the radio items in which she appeared — as I’m currently doing as part of my research — you see a clear strategy emerge. She pushes three narratives*:

  1. Cyclists don’t belong on the road.
  2. Truckers are victims.
  3. Cyclists are the problem.

Digressing for a moment into the personal, this radio analysis is one of the hardest things I have had to do in my life. Being as immersed in the topic as I am, it is very difficult to transcribe these broadcasts, actually writing down what is being said, with no escape from the reality of what is being put out there over and over into the public mind.

Take the narrative that cyclists don’t belong on Irish roads, one that not only Verona pushed at the time. The argument is that the Irish roads network is simply not suitable for cycling. It’s not like the roads in mainland Europe: in Ireland, there is simply not physical space enough to accommodate bicycles.

The roads were also not designed for cycling, having been laid out in days when the widest thing you could travel in was a horse and cart, or having been built in the late twentieth century when engineering was all about the needs of the driver. Now it’s there, a done thing in tar, so. The talking heads don’t do a Hook and state outright hatred, they don’t explicitly call for cycling to be banned. Instead they turn the soil, work in the fertiliser and water the flowerbed and plant the seeds for that idea.

Why do I find this narrative so disturbing?

Firstly, because of inattentional blindness. Your mind can literally discard input from your eyes under certain circumstances, notably, if what you see is not what you expect to see. When a certain group of road users is low in our “programming” of what belongs on the road, what you should expect to see, you could look directly at it and not see it. This was shown to be the case with motorcyclists, and the study is significant in its relevance to cyclists.

Pushing the narrative that cyclists don’t belong on the road could contribute to our brains becoming programmed not to see them, no matter how visible they are. This message is reinforced by another I’ve identified in the radio broadcasts I’ve analysed so far, where the term “invisible cyclist” is literally used for anyone not clad head to foot in hi vis. It’s repeated over and over, programming drivers to not see cyclists on the road.

Secondly, the narrative that cyclists shouldn’t be road users is disturbing because of the social dynamics taking place on our roads.

“Social dynamics” may sound boring and not serious, but it is social dynamics that cause events as serious as wars. It is absolutely not benign. In the context of road use, an overwhelming message is screamed everywhere you turn that roads are the territory of drivers, and that drivers are an upper class – like nobility – in this social system.

Using terminology from sociology, there is a tendency to punish deviance – in plain language, when someone is doing something that is different from what people think of as normal, there is a high risk of violence against them. We see this for instance in the higher risk of violence faced by people living with mental illness.

Pushing the idea that cyclists don’t belong on the roads is pushing the idea that someone who cycles is being deviant, being different. Those who see cyclists as violating “their” territory — drivers — are by definition armed with a lethal weapon.

The extent to which social dynamics, psychology and sociology matter in very real ways is strikingly shown in research done by Ian Walker, where a cyclist wearing a vest with writing perceived as trying to trick the driver experienced a higher number of close passes, as well as acts of overt aggression from drivers.

Pushing a narrative that heightens the likelihood of aggression in armed people towards vulnerable people is dangerous and irresponsible. People like Verona Murphy and others trumpeting that our roads are simply not suitable for cycling are no doubt not trying to put lives at risk, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

*In media studies the term “narrative” can be defined as an idea about life that is put into the public mind through media communication. It is very powerful in shaping the way we see the world.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

6 Comments

  1. A friend recently posted this on FB.
    I was on my bike this morning and close-passed by an enormous tractor and trailer. Normally that would be the end of the matter but this time I caught up with the driver when he stopped at a service station further on. I stopped and stood by his tractor until he came out and I gently let him know that he had passed dangerously close to me. The response was much as expected – succinct and (I thought) rather poetic, nicely summing up the attitude many drivers have to cyclists. ‘You shouldn’t be on the road. Fuck off! I have work to do.’ He repeated variations of this with ever increasing loudness, laying on the expletives good and heavy. After the final ‘fuck off’ I took my bottle from the bottle cage and slowly lifted it up taking care that he would see the ‘Garda on Bike’ logo and said ‘You’re fucked now. You know that?’ Like magic his demeanour changed and he started making excuses and giving me explanations all the while apologising to me. After a cheery goodbye from him I decided to let him drive off ahead of me.

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  2. Most roads are not suitable for articulated trucks. They are too narrow, the council and NRA are avoiding their responsibilities to provide an adequate road network for ALL road users, cars, vans , lorries, tractors, bicycles and pedestrians.

  3. On the face of it it’s a pretty hard argument to make. That our poor medieval roads are just not wide enough for bicycles, but you can drive a 40 ton, 2.5m wide, 15m long truck on them. In addition to that, these vehicles, despite solutions being available, have a there lane wide death zone all around them. The IRHA don’t call it that, they just mention that anyone who goes inside this three lane wide zone is bascially committing suicide.

    There’s an aphorism that you can’t make someone believe a thing if their job depends on not believing it. The converse is clearly true. Someone will believe any old nonsense if their job depends on it, or if they just really want to. So the IRHA can claim that cyclists are the ones putting themselves in danger. When people suggest that perhaps banning these vehicles that kill people every single year from city centres the IRHA will exclaim that these trucks are needed to make deliveries and that while they could use smaller (less deadly) vehicles based in distribution centres on the outskirts that would make shopping slightly more expensive. The normal man in the street will then believe that if the choice is between them paying slightly more in Tesco, some cyclists dying or cycling being banned completely then anything that costs them money is clearly not the right choice.

  4. What’s heartbreaking about this attitude is how obtuse it is. Our roads were never meant for trucks and cars, but for walkers, horse & carts and bikes! Motor vehicles have one class of roads, exclusively to themselves, motorways… other than that, sorry, you have to share your toys!

    The majority of our road users simply can’t drive. They may be children, disabled, low income and can’t afford it, or banned from driving. And how are they to get about? As someone who didn’t have a car till their 30’s due to financial restraints and then hauled the kids all over the country, the thought of a 12 yr old not able to make thier own way to school or practice is eye watering. God help us if we can’t get on our bikes!

  5. >these trucks are needed to make deliveries and that while they could use smaller (less deadly) vehicles based in distribution centres on the outskirts that would make shopping slightly more expensive

    1 X 40 tone truck carries the equivalent of 20 small vans or 7 small trucks, if you went with such a plan(which I see repeated every where) the result would be more expensive good due to increased delivery costs, more traffic and congestion meaning increased risk to cyclists, also more pollution meaning increased health risks.

  6. Nadia Williams August 1, 2018 at 8:45 am

    1 X 40 tone truck carries the equivalent of 20 small vans or 7 small trucks, if you went with such a plan(which I see repeated every where) the result would be more expensive good due to increased delivery costs

    Yet the cost to society of our poor cycling uptake likely dwarfs this. Not only is there a cost in lives, which is perhaps obscene to put a monetary value to, there is a calculable economic cost. The Netherlands’ high cycling uptake (last I checked it was 26% modal share, our modal share was 1.7% in 2017) has a value to them equivalent to 3% of their GDP, so the less we cycle, the less of that potential value we see. The most commonly identified barrier to cycling uptake is fear (this is from peer-reviewed studies). The scariest thing to share a road with (in my opinion) is a truck. The facts also just seem to confirm over and over that big trucks cannot, no matter how well trained the driver, safely navigate suburban streets, so as long as they’re on our urban streets there will be people looking at them and saying: “Not on your life will I get on a bike while that’s what I’ll be cycling next to”.

    more traffic and congestion meaning increased risk to cyclists

    Only if you assume two things: first, that the alternative delivery vehicles will have to be smaller trucks, not something completely different. There are battery-assisted cargo bikes with more capacity than you’d think, to start with, which offset their smaller size by being able to move more efficiently in an urban environment.

    Second, you assume that the rest of traffic will stay the same, but moving to eliminate large trucks from urban areas would have to be part of a push to encourage active travel uptake. Traffic congestion drops when more people ride bikes and walk to get around. Again, fear is the most common thing keeping people from cycling, and while it’s not the only thing, making our streets safe for cycling is a foundation stone without which you cannot build a solution to the problems caused by the way we have lived the past 50-70 years.

    …also more pollution meaning increased health risks.

    Again you’re showing the depth of your conditioning that life can only be powered by fossil fuels. There are viable alternatives to petrol or diesel guzzling vehicles, so this point is invalid.

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