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*:
- Cyclists don’t belong on the road.
- Truckers are victims.
- 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.