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Dear Andrew Jones MP, cycling minister

Andrew Jones MP opening a road

Andrew Jones MP opening a road, by Highways England, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Dear Andrew Jones, cycling minister,

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. You were only given the cycling and sustainable transport brief on 21st July. Two months ago, and already we have a 'head in hands' moment, when anyone who rides a bike will be dismayed.

You launched a THINK! campaign on Monday, which claims that it is 'to improve cyclists' safety'. It will do nothing of the kind.

Your press release explains: 'The THINK! campaign has been developed after statistics showed last year a fifth of crashes between cyclists and HGVs happen when the lorry is turning left.' It doesn't say any more than that, so it is impossible to know if the campaign's suggestion ('cyclists urged to hang back from lorries to cut the number of crashes and improve cycling safety') is helpful or irrelevant. Did these crashes happen because the cyclist failed to 'hang back'? Or did they happen because the cyclist was overtaken by the lorry driver, who then turned left and crushed them? Or after both parties had been waiting at traffic lights? Or when someone on a bike was attempting to use the official left-hand-side cycle lane leading to an Advanced Stop Zone?

So, the campaign is masquerading as evidence-based and rational, but it isn't, or at least there's no way of judging whether it is or not, based on the information given by the DfT.

The crass and offensive video

Then we come to the video supporting the campaign, which is crass and offensive, and gratuitously violent. There appear to be two very similar versions of this appalling film, and this is one of them:

These are my objections to the video:

1) The way it tries to make a joke out of violence in various clips of boxing, chopping meat with a huge cleaver, and a cartoon character being crushed by metal girders, is unbelievably inappropriate to the subject. I imagine some 'creative' thought they were being clever, not just an offensive wally. Please don't make a joke out of my personal safety when I'm riding a bike.

2) The video is gratuitously violent. It's hard to believe that a government safety video would take such apparent pleasure in imagining the death of someone riding a bike.

The previous cycling minister, Robert Goodwill, often talked about the 'perception of danger' being greater than the actual danger of riding a bike. He was correct (although it may well have been an excuse for doing very little to address actual danger). How does this video of a cyclist being crushed by a huge truck help reduce the perception of danger?

3) The circumstances in which the lorry comes to crush the bike and rider are unclear. The video raises more questions than it answers. It appears to be a left hook, where the lorry driver overtakes the cyclist, then turns left, running him over. If so, it's the HGV driver's fault, but the government's message to him or her appears to be 'don't worry, you drive how you like - it's not you who is going to end up dead, and we'll blame the victim.'

'Hang back' isn't even good advice. It depends entirely on the circumstances. It might be the right thing to do sometimes, and not others, or you might not have time to do anything at all, and you could still be run over.

4) The video appears to envisage an assertive young male being crushed because he is unwilling to let the truck pass. Is that the problem which has caused cyclists' deaths? I don't believe so. Many of the victims of HGVs in London have been women, who are typically less assertive than men. Are we sure that encouraging people to be more timid is helpful, or could it be counter-productive?

5) In every town and city in the UK, including Harrogate, there is infrastructure which encourages cyclists to pass traffic on the left, in left-hand cycle lanes, leading to cyclists' Advanced Stop Zones. It may not always be safe to use this official infrastructure. Perhaps this road design needs to be re-thought. In the meantime, conflicting messages are being sent to people riding bikes on the road.

6) The video appears to give a licence to HGV drivers to bully vulnerable road users out of the way, and that is not a good thing. Many such professional drivers are just that - professional, and careful and considerate. Some are not. Based on my personal experience, I dread encountering trucks plastered with enormous disclaimers for their bad driving along the lines of 'CYCLISTS STAY BACK'. You know immediately that that firm or driver is hostile to cyclists. They often seem to think that having stuck their disclaimer on the back of their truck, that's it, they are absolved of responsibility, and they can drive as aggressively and inconsiderately as they choose.

This video is encouraging exactly that irresponsible attitude, and that makes the video itself highly irresponsible.

7) This appalling piece of cinema alienates cyclists, it doesn't persuade them. 

A typical comment is this one, from Scott Parker, on Youtube: 'So a lorry overtakes a cyclist at speed on a narrow street with a 20mph limit just before the driver intends to turn left, cuts across the the cyclist's path and takes him out. And this is [the] fault of the cyclist, shocking that was allowed to be produced never mind released.'

Gina Langridge asks: 'How do you avoid a lorry overtaking you at speed then turning in front of you and crushing you?' It's a good question.

On the other hand, the video has delighted the anti-cycling bigots who pollute the comments below the line of any cycling article in a mainstream publication. There's no shortage of people prepared to imagine the death of someone riding a bike, and revel in it. Half the time, they make a comment about Darwin and natural selection, thinking they are the brilliantly funny and original new Miles Jupp. This was fat pig on youtube: 'Oh sorry cyclist. How about we all cater for 1 tiny cyclist on the road. we'll all cause delays and jams for u faggot cyclist so u can pedal in the middle of the road. here's a little lesson. If you stayed in the blue lane then no one would die.'

Thank goodness for the comment from duck down, who gave me a much-needed laugh: 'I really thank u i am a reckless cyclist n this was a wake up call btw i know wt u mean by the left turn may Allah(God) protect us all'

But you're never going to persuade anyone by alienating and annoying them; pleasing people who hate 'cyclists' does not achieve the stated aim of the campaign - to improve cyclist safety.

What now, Andrew Jones cycling minister?

Is this a strategy on your part to alienate cyclists faster than any of your predessors? It's certainly a good start.

More seriously, I don't think it's acceptable for you to keep your head down and say nothing about this. You ought to reconsider this campaign which is, as Chris Boardman said, 'desperately misguided'. Then for the future, you would do well to consult and listen to respected cycling organisations like British Cycling and Cycling UK.

Otherwise, there's a change.org petition for you to resign. 

Depending on your reaction now, I think you should be given the benefit of the doubt. You might still be the right person to be cycling minister, but this is a terrible start.

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