So, like most people I’ve tried to spend the last few weeks enjoying summer and thinking of nice things like going for fun bike rides. But the good ol’ media, bless them, never sleep in their quest to remind us that cycling is actually a terribly dangerous thing (and those who do it are just freeloading scofflaws probably wearing lycra…).
As we went into the New Year, Fairfax decided to let us know that cycling is actually “hell on two wheels”. Yours truly was interviewed for this article and asked how road users (on both sides) could reduce the chances of getting into a crash. But, as I also reminded them, the odds of actually having a crash in the first place are actually very low. Funny how that information gets tucked away near the end and bearing little relationship to the heading…
And then into the New Year we sadly had a person killed while cycling in Auckland. Now, just for context, this was the first cycling fatality in NZ in six months. But The Herald decided that was the cue to start a concentrated series of articles “aimed at enhancing road safety, reducing the risk to cyclists, and improving relations between motorists and riders”. From the resulting output, I’m not sure that they achieved the desired outcomes…
In just over a week we’ve had about 20 articles, including the following:
- The somewhat irrelevant news that in the past year about 10,000 cyclists are fined in NZ for not wearing a helmet and about 300-400 for other offences (“those scofflaws!”). What I wanted to know was: exactly how many motorists each year are ticketed for instances of dangerous behaviour towards riders?
- There was a suggestion that the unfortunate cycling victim rode through a red light. Suddenly lo and behold, out comes an Auckland Transport study from 9 months ago suggesting that 60% of road users observed running red lights were cyclists (“those scofflaws!”). Of course, context is everything, and Cycle Action Auckland have done a pretty good job of defusing the headline claim. But mud sticks and it’s amazing how many people I’ve seen quote that 60% figure since then… (some of them probably think it means 60% of all cyclists…)
- The hoary old chestnut about calling for bikes to be registered to improve rider behaviour (yeah, because that’s working well for all those registered motor vehicles…). To their credit, the AA dismissed the idea as unworkable. The same article also mistakenly said that cyclists must “ride as far left as they can” – actually it’s “as far left as practicable”, which allows for situations where it is safer to be further out or take the lane.
- An interactive online map is provided of all cycle crashes in NZ during 2008-12 (right… because that’ll put people’s minds at ease…). Interestingly, an opportunity is also provided for people to identify cycle blackspots anywhere in NZ using an online map. Not surprisingly, for an Auckland-based paper, most locations submitted are in that region, but to date a couple of Christchurch locations are also listed.
- To get the “real” angle, The Herald decided to get some of its own reporters to swap their daily drive/bike commutes. But getting someone to swap their ride for one day is hardly likely to present a robust impression (especially if they didn’t have a buddy to point out all the rookie mistakes), and they almost seem quite disappointed that nothing news-worthy happened (“I didn’t hit anyone!”).
- Coincidentally the NZ Transport Agency had already planned to release a new cycle safety campaign this week aimed at “humanising” riders as more than just “cyclists”. We’ll look at this more in a future post. Given that The Herald continues to talk about “cyclists” and “motorists” as if they were two alien species, I’m not sure that they’ve grasped the point yet…
Not surprisingly, given the chance, the trolls were out to feed the comments on these articles. And while newspapers at least try to remain reasonably balanced, some bloggers and their readers got incredibly rabid at those “blimmin’ cyclists” (no, don’t look if you want to retain your innocence…). It’s ironic too that, at the same time NZTA has come out with a new safety advert pointing out that people shouldn’t pay for mistakes with their lives, many commenters have been quite quick to say “you break the rules, you deserve what you get”. Kudos to Cycle Action Akld for pointing out the more productive ways to tackle this problem.
In amongst all this, Fairfax just happened to think it was an opportune time to run a story, citing the cost to ACC of all those cycling crashes. The implication was that the costs were on the rise (getting more dangerous?) – in the printed version of The Press they even used the word “skyrocket” in the heading – although as was pointed out to them, it could just reflect more people cycling. Meanwhile a few more will just see it as evidence that “cyclists don’t pay”, even though we’ve debunked that myth previously.
Because most of this attention has been based in Auckland, you may have missed much of the controversy. It also seems to me that, partly thanks to our existing higher proportion of people cycling here, both the media and the general public in Christchurch tend to have a far less hysterical reaction to cycling issues (“people cycle – big deal…”). Nevertheless, The Press is still guilty of often looking for the “danger/controversy” angle, even when there isn’t one – no doubt as the cycleway rebuild gets into full swing they’ll find a few more axes to grind…
What do you think of media coverage of cycling?