COMMENT & ANALYSIS: LONG READ: Last night RTE’s flagship night time current affairs TV programme Prime Time covered cycling again and, again, messed it up.
One-way or another the last few Prime Time programmes covering cycling (and transport where cycling should have been mentioned) shows some level of journalist mess up, be it bias or other.
One of the main problems is pitting cycling safety as a “war between cyclists and motorists” — this was actually said in a preview of last night’s show. The programme starts with a reference to 15 people killed last year — all involved collisions with motorists — and Prime Time feels it’s ok dress the issue up as a war as if both “sides” have deadly weapons.
Another key mistake — which is a common one for broadcast media tacking cycling — is that they took a scattergun approach.
It tried to cover the proposed plan to have a minimum passing distance for motorists overtaking people on bicycles (1.5m in areas over 50km/h and 1m in areas less than that), and did so firmly in the context of the number of cycling deaths rising to 15 last year. But it also tried to cover or let guests mention the likes of:
- who is mainly to blame in collisions
- the effectiveness of “safety” gear
- if “cyclists are their own worst enemies” as the presenter said “some motorists think”
- cyclists using footpaths
- cyclists running red lights
- mandatory use of cycle lanes
- motorists parked in cycle lanes
- is it right to exclude motorists from Dublin City Centre (note: there’s no such plan)
- insurance for cycling
- training for cyclists
- training for truck drivers
- the number of unpaid cycling fines
- aggression from motorists and cyclists
It’s impossible for humans to discuss so many sub-issues in a relatively short segment on TV while having any respect for the dead or being fair to the issues.
In the introduction to the item presenter David McCullagh tells viewers that “some motorists” think “cyclists are their own worst enemies — breaking traffic lights, weaving in and out of cars, and, unlike any other road users, taking to the footpath when ever it suits them.”
This is said in the clear context of 15 people killed last year when cycling and there’s no balance offered by the presenter to it.
Viewers are also told that there’s 1.2 million people commuting to work by car and they “once had to look out for an occasional cyclist now have to look out for 57,000 of them”.
That’s the wrong figure for people who commute by bike nationally and they strangely use a larger figure later, but you might ask: What’s the harm in using the figures at all? You would be forgiven for asking, but the Prime Time team have a history of letting their views against restrictions on cars in Dublin City centre to influence their coverage of national cycling issues and, in this programme, they sickeningly played a numbers game of motorists vs cyclists in the context they set of 15 people being killed when cycling last year.
And I’m not imagining this — one of the questions McCullagh later puts to a cycling campaigner on the panel discussion asking is it fair to push cars out of Dublin City centre because car users are the majority.
And that’s another problem with Prime Time and cycling figures — this city centre argument hinges on using national figures when bicycle users have started to out number cars (mostly with one person in them) on an increasing number of streets in the city centre.
And there seems to be no realisation why pro-sustainable and active transport policy is being put in place — the status quo is the argument… imagine if presenters took this approach for other social issues we face as a country?
After the introduction we get videos of motorists and cyclists behaving badly. We’re mainly showen motorists at speed passing people on bicycles within inches of their handle bars and other people cycling on footpaths slowly — as if these things are comparably dangerous.
Cycling on footpaths is a problem. Especially for people with slower mobility and those who have disabilities. It would be wrong to brush that away. But cycling-walking interactions still aren’t anyway as much of an issue as motorists overtaking bicycles too close — one is closely linked to deaths yearly, while the other is rarely linked to death. Thankfully there’s none in recent history.
The video clips were interlaced with clips of the Road Safety Authority spokesman Brian Farrell — most of what he said is hard to argue with, everyone needs to obey the law and there’s maybe a stronger duty of care on motorists given the danger motorists poses to others.
Farrell however did the classic official thing of confuse the Rules of the Road and the road traffic law — two things which sometimes differ.
The Rules of the Road state that cyclists must use cycle lanes, but road traffic law does not. Leo Varadkar, when transport minister, removed the the mandatory use requirement — he was clear in the Dail about this and the explanatory note under legislation outlined the same. Explanatory notes come with warning of their limitations but so does the Rules of the Road booklet.
Some civil servants have come to the view that there’s a flaw in the legislation which repealed mandatory use, but they won’t supply proof of this, and, in any case, only the Courts have a firm and final say on what’s illegal or not.
The main road traffic act also states that road users must keep themselves and other road users safe and independent research conducted for the RSA outlines how cycle lanes are not always the safest place to be.
If it was anything but cycling, Prime Time would be asking questions like: why are unelected officials changing their views of the intent of a law change when a minister and now Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) signed off on that intent? Why didn’t they tell anybody about an apparent mistake in the law? Why were the Rules of the Road changed without telling anyone? And why did the current minister for transport go along with this for so long before commissioning expensive research and changing his mind? Why didn’t he just follow Government policy and the clear intent of the previous minister? Why are our cycle lanes in such a state and why aren’t they designed right?
But instead we get Prime Time mixing the deaths of 15 people with the relatively minor actions of others slowly cycling on footpaths — again, to be clear: cycling on footpaths is against the law but clips of people doing it at walking speed is hardly the main issue even for pedestrians.
More to the point, there’s no evidence that the people who were killed were doing something wrong when killed.
And then we get a panel discussion with loads of issues raised but very few discussed in detail.
We get Cllr Mannix Flynn saying he gets aggression from cyclists when he corrects random people on the street — try to ask motorists not to run you over or pedestrians not to walk out in front of you and guess what? You’re also likely to get abuse back. All are human.
Cllr Flynn said that “the biggest problem we have is cyclists behaviour” and cyclists being disrespectful of other road user. This isn’t pick up on by the presenter — they focus on the disrespect, not what is actually the biggest problem — road deaths. When a guest, Irish Examiner columnist Victoria White, tried to say why she thinks cyclists aren’t the biggest problem, Cllr Flynn tries to interject again and is stopped by the presenter. But no questioning of Cllr Flynn’s position that 15 people killed last year isn’t the larger problem then him getting some aggression when he tackles the behaviour of random strangers.
And then we got the president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, Verona Murphy, left unchallenged when she made snide remarks with a smirk on her face (pictured below) about a man who died when cycling and collided with a pedestrian walking on the cycle path in the Phoenix Park.
Murphy thinks that cyclists need to look after their own safety and that safety gear for cyclists is “paramount” when it comes to cycling and truck safety. There’s no evidence to support this. The evidence supports segregation and, in the meanwhile, education of both and removal of blind spots by better vehicle design (something some of her members have also opposed).
The presenter moves onto an apparent annoyance he or someone else on the programme has with space in a city centre being transferred from cars to sustainable transport (not just cycling).
And then onto a high figure of unpaid fines for cycling offences — as if running red lights was relevant to the 15 people killed last year when all were killed away from junctions and mostly miles away from any traffic lights or footpaths.
There’s strong indications in Ireland that motorists overtaking cyclists ranks high in the collisions causing cycling deaths in recent years (it will take time to confirm how prevenient this is. But, in the meanwhile, the international evidence points out that cyclists are rarely at fault (see: this, this, etc).
I’m just left wondering what was the programme all was about. Did any of it further road safety? Did it make things worse? Was maligning the dead worth it?