Ever since my non-appearance on TV last weekend I’ve been wondering how well I would have coped under that much pressure – the actual interviewee Laura Laker performed valiantly considering she was under fire from three sides (widower Matt Briggs and the two presenters feigning their best controlled tabloid outrage – the interview can be watched here). Of course, that process involves retrospectively perfecting and refining one’s (in my case imagined) points and arguments, also in the context of how the discussion has developed over the course of the week. So here are a few ideas on what I think are good pro-bike arguments to make in the current tediously anti-bike climate. You may find one or two of them useful if you’re engaging with velophobes on Twitter, in the office, as a campaigner or in a journalistic situation.
1) Emotions trump facts – always
Matt Briggs never wanted to be a campaigner. He’s just a regular bloke who lost his wife in a freak collision with a bike-rider, so I think it’s unfair to take issue with his stance. Any criticism (and there is plenty) needs to be aimed at the velophobic media who have taken up Briggs’s cause because it lends their anti-cycling venom an emotional dimension: “You say bikes aren’t dangerous, but look, here’s a grieving widower, a single dad, two half-orphans – all because of a #bloodycyclist riding an illegal bike.”
That’s a big emotional cudgel they’re wielding right there, and it’s for us to counter that not just with facts, but with something that will permit the same level of emotional buy-in.
Perhaps understandably, many cycling advocates have seen fit to play down the risk posed to pedestrians by bikes, for instance by comparing the likelihood of being killed by someone on a bike to being killed by a bee sting. Now, that’s a perfectly rational argument, but it’s not an emotional one. It basically says, we acknowledge that there’s a risk but it’s so tiny it’s barely relevant. However, that’s of little comfort to the grieving family. So instead of playing down the risk from bikes, how about simply, sensitively, and without “whataboutery“, exposing the true extent of the devastation on our roads, which we as a society sweep under the carpet, along the following lines:
Yes, I acknowledge that what happened to the Briggs family is a terrible tragedy. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that, on average, five people a day die on our roads. That’s five families a day whose loved ones are wrenched from them as violently and suddenly and heart-breakingly as Kim Briggs was.
If we are going to publicly grieve Kim Briggs, then we also should publicly grieve Josh Jarvis and Harry Sievey and Jaye Bloomfield and Olivia Wojciechowska and every single one of the other thousands of people killed on our roads each year.
If we are going to invite Matt Briggs on to the TV to tell his story, then the families of every single one of the other thousands of people killed on our roads each year should be invited on to the TV to tell their stories.
If Matt Briggs is given access to ministers to lobby for changes to the law, then the families of every single one of the families of the other thousands of people killed on our roads each year should be given access to ministers to lobby for changes to the law.
If the Prime Minister is going to pay tribute to Kim Briggs, then the Prime Minister should pay tribute to each and every single one of the other thousands of people killed on our roads each year.
If we’re going to have a discussion around road safety, then it needs to consider all victims, all bereaved families and needs to be balanced and proportionate.
In the BBC interview, Matt Briggs says he wants the new law of causing death by dangerous cycling introduced in order to create parity with the laws that exist for drivers of motor vehicles. Again, that sounds reasonable on the face of it, and I’m guessing that most people who don’t actively engage with issues of road safety assume that, with vehicles being as generally regulated as they are, people who kill on our roads are dealt with appropriately. They’re not. Week in, week out we see stories of killer drivers walking free from court, or getting away with laughable penalties. An extreme case is the story of Esmé Rose Weir, a four-year-old girl who was killed while scooting along the pavement in front of her mother when a van driver illegally mounted said pavement and crushed her to death under the wheels of his van. Outcome? The driver walked free. Commits an illegal act in a motor vehicle, kills a child, no sanction. Such is the state of the law around death by driving. Indeed, simply Google the phrase “driver walks free” to see a vast array of cases in which killer drivers have been acquitted, usually to the anger and outrage of their loved ones, but not to us as a broader society. Here again, to give it the emotional edge, I think it needs to be couched in more emotive language than pure facts and figures, something like:
The parity of which Matt Briggs speaks is sadly far from the reality in our legal system as it stands. At the present moment, there will be scores of families up and down the country who are not only coming to terms with the sudden, violent loss of a loved one on the roads, but who will be gradually being told by the police that the prospects of securing a satisfactory conviction for the person who killed their loved one are remote because the current “death by driving laws” are not fit for purpose.
So if we are going to introduce a law that ensures that people who kill by reckless cycling are properly dealt with by the courts, we also need to mend the laws around drivers who kill so that every family that loses a loved one in this way can rely on justice properly being done.
This one applies more in a journalistic setting, and in this context I think it’s important to appeal to the journalist’s professional integrity, something along the following lines:
You’ve chosen to focus on one small aspect of a wider consultation. Even Matt Briggs concedes that incidences of death by dangerous cycling are rare, and of course such a law would only come into play once someone else has died under similar circumstances.
There are other measures proposed in the consultation which, if implemented correctly, have the potential to substantially reduce risks on our roads – such as greater enforcement of close-passes on bike-riders, enhancements to the Highway Code, acknowledgement of the need for proper infrastructure to protect vulnerable road users from motor traffic etc.
I’d expect the gutter press to focus on the anti-cycling aspect. But why are you letting them set the agenda? I would have expected more balance, especially from you.
Getting the right tone of messaging around cycling is something I think about a lot. After all, we bike advocates have all the arguments on our side: bikes are cheap, clean, green, efficient, agile, healthy, fun etc. etc. The bicycle is a simple and elegant solution to a whole host of complex issues. So if it were a mere matter of rational logic, we’d all be on bikes and our society would have long ago recognised the folly of car-centricity. Yet we still struggle to get the message through.
If you ask me, that’s because we fail to appreciate this emotional dimension. It’s very similar to why the Remain campaign lost the Brexit vote: having the best rational arguments isn’t anywhere near enough in a post-truth, social-media-driven age. We need to make that emotional connection, we need to make the argument tangible, palpable to our counterpart and audience. Make it about them, not just us. Make them do some emotional as opposed to just intellectual work.
For example: in response to “No one uses this cycle lane”, not: “it’s probably really rubbish and there’s no compulsion to use them blah blah”; we should try get to them imagining themselves in that position: “If you think it’s good enough for others, why aren’t you using it?” And so on.
That’s where I am after this very strange week: dangerous cycling laws proposed, alleged terrorist attacks people on bikes, Queen’s homeopath killed while cycling. As ever, I would welcome any thoughts and feedback. My personal experience in messaging is that this emotional angle can be useful and our failure to latch on to it is one of the many reasons why it’s so hard to gain ground, even with all the best arguments. People are tired of experts, remember. They want someone they can relate to. And that’s what we need to work on.