Cycling advocates armed with facts are trying to empty a stream with a bucket

Today I got out of bed upset. I shouldn’t be. And I should be. Let me explain.

I’m wading my way through the sentiment behind more than 2,000 statements from more than 1,400 social media comments related to cycling and cyclists. One of the most striking realisations I’ve had so far is that people’s convictions about cycling are immovable objects.

Cycling advocates presenting facts are trying to empty a stream with a bucket. People presented with the facts about cycling seem not to change their minds. I know this. I shouldn’t be surprised by this. And still I am.

My undergraduate thesis examined the effect of the clothing in which cyclists are depicted in RSA multimedia on perceptions of safety. As part of the literature review, I discussed the helmet debate. I discussed the massive health benefit of good cycling uptake. I discussed the main barrier to cycling uptake: perceptions of both physical and psychological safety.

I conducted research and found when people see cyclists in helmet and hi-vis they are more likely to rate cycling as dangerous and socially unacceptable than when the cyclist is shown in everyday clothes. I discussed the likely impact of this on cycling uptake, and the consequent negative impact on health.

This morning before I got out of bed I read a tweet from a very sweet former lecturer. This person had supervised my undergrad thesis, had read said thesis with attention.

I will not embed or link to the tweet as this is not about my former lecturer, it is about the nature of the task facing cycling advocates. The tweet said that people don’t wear helmets while cycling because “it doesn’t look the part and they are uncomfortable. Safety is often the third consideration when it really should be the primary one.”

If this intelligent, thoughtful person, exposed to such detailed examination of the issues, still ends up broadcasting a message that cyclists are more concerned with their looks than their safety, and don’t prioritise safety, what chance do we have to get anyone to understand the issues? Because what the tweet said is not false, but it is also not true.

The beliefs standing between Ireland and good cycling uptake are simple, while the arguments against them are complex. This is only a small part of what makes these beliefs immovable objects.

My dad loved to challenge me with word games and mind puzzles. One of these was “What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?” For years, this question awed and fascinated me. One day, in my teens, it hit me: the unstoppable force goes around. Maybe the answer to the cycling advocacy problem is the same.


WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT BICYCLE HELMETS?: Take a look at our article 6 reasons bicycle helmets shouldn’t be any government’s policy and, if you think we’re just mad cycling people, please have a read of this BMJ article written. It’s written by Ben Goldacre, who is known for his writing about misuse of science and who is a epidemiology researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, and David Spiegelhalter, who is a professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Brilliant illumination of this hard-to-understand/credit issue! Thanks Nadia!

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