Earlier this week the Institute of Advanced Motorists issued a press release based on a website survey claiming that 57% of cyclists have ridden through traffic lights on red. In the same survey the IAM found that 32% of motorists also drove through red but this statistic was not included in the original press release (it was later inserted in a version of the release carried on the charity’s website).
The Evening Standard swallowed the press release whole, and even started a mid-week piece by saying the survey was "no surprise" and that cyclists were "Lycra louts." The Daily Mail website – the most read website in the world – also carried a negative piece about cyclists, citing the 57% statistic as though it was empirical research..
IAM’s press release was headlined "More than half of cyclists jump red lights." The first line read: "Fifty-seven per cent of cyclists admit to jumping red lights according to the IAM’s latest poll of 1600 people."
When IAM issued its first press release BikeBiz asked why the charity didn’t stress that all road users are guilty of running reds, why omit the fact that motorists run reds too?[For the record, BikeBiz does not condone red light running by cyclists and never has].
IAM’s press officer Caroline Holmes said the IAM would be issuing a ‘motorists run red lights’ press release "in the near future."
BikeBiz warned IAM that the original press release would lead to negative articles about cycling in the mass media and this would put cyclists at danger, from motorists who would have their stereotypes about cyclists confirmed.
IAM refused to alter the press release so BikeBiz broke the press release embargo in order to warn cyclists of the media backlash that would soon follow. The Guardian and The Times also broke the embargo for the same reason, criticising the supposed research the release was based on.
IAM had used social media to get people to complete a badly-worded survey (1600 did so) but did not check any of the respondants and was not able to break down the results by age, gender, or location.
And digging into the results it was clear IAM didn’t know how to present or analyse statistics. 2% of the 1600 who responded said cyclists regularly ran reds, many of the rest had ran a red "once" but there was no space to report that this could have been because some traffic lights only trip for cars and cyclists would wait for ever if no cars came along to press the road-embedded induction loops.
A pollster for survey company Ipos Mori says in today’s Guardian that the survey "distorted results".
Steven Hope wrote: "I’m trying hard to see this debacle as a case of good intentions gone horribly wrong rather than a case of the the IAM deliberately playing fast and loose with statistics and using cyclists as the bait to catch some red top headlines.
"I’m also struggling to resist schadenfreude because, as a professional pollster, I normally at least allow myself a wry smile when poor research gets outed and usually laugh out loud when this type of home-cooked, half-baked poll falls flat.Second, I am angry because in spite of all the weaknesses in this type of uncontrolled, self-selecting, online polling, the real dodge was to accumulate the frequent, sometimes, rarely and "once or twice" and include them all in the "over half of cyclists" headline. With this sleight of hand sensible manoeuvres and distant misdemeanours are turned into a current habit and whatever subsequent explanations follow, what sticks is that 57% of cyclists jump red lights.
"But most importantly, I am angry with IAM because while most of these polls are silly PR fluff, this particular example is potentially dangerous. Many cyclists already feel that they are treated with contempt by drivers and that their safety is compromised on Britain’s clogged and poorly designed roads. Distorting the data and giving the impression of cyclists as serial lawbreakers has real potential to bring those wing mirrors a little bit closer, make the abuse a little louder and the cutting up a little more life threatening."
Such arguments wouldn’t impress David Williams, the motoring correspondent of the Evening Standard ("I actually make more cycle trips than car trips, and enjoy pedalling around London…"). In today’s paper he claimed that BikeBiz "reacted with the predictable ‘car drivers are worse’ argument, accusing the IAM of stoking hate and using flawed logic."
Nowhere in the BikeBiz stories on this topic is there any mention that "car drivers are worse". Our accusation that the IAM would stoke hate came true, and the flawed logic bit would be obvious to any journalist who looked at the actual survey and saw what IAM produced from it.
BikeBiz is not a lone voice: British Cycling, Sustrans, and CTC also criticised IAM’s survey and the motives for producing a one-side press release. The Bicycle Association’s executive director Phillip Darnton wrote an open letter to IAM accusing it of producing a "bogus" survey that would enflame feelings against cyclists.
Simon Best, chief executive of IAM, has now responded to Darnton’s blistering letter and far from backing down, the IAM boss appears to blame red running cyclists for an increase in fatalities, when in fact, the leading cause of cyclist deaths, in London at least, is inattentive HGV drivers.
Here’s Best’s letter:
I felt that I should respond personally to your email to Caroline Holmes dated 16th May 2012 regarding our recent press release.
The IAM is a road safety organisation with the sole aim of reducing death and injury of all road users in the UK. Historically our focus has very much been towards drivers and riders of powered vehicles, but as you know, we moved into cycling in 2010 with the publication of our cycling book ‘How to be a better cyclist’ to support this vulnerable group of road users.
I am sure that you and your colleagues at the Bicycle Association are acutely aware of the worrying trend in the casualty statistics for cyclists. The last two quarters of data from the DfT report an 8% increase in the number killed or seriously injured. This is certainly of concern to me and the IAM decided to try and understand more about why this is happening. Our survey was aimed at understanding the attitudes and actions of cyclists – jumping red lights is often cited as an area of concern.
Our survey found that 57% of cyclists admitted jumping red lights at least once. Disappointingly, what the press failed to report was the reason given by cyclists for this action – they believed it better to get ahead of other traffic for safety reasons. Whilst this shouldn’t be an excuse for breaking the law it does confirm that that the current interaction between drivers and cyclists within our road infrastructure is leading to the wrong behaviour.
Highlighting road safety issues is a large part of our work. We have been running surveys for about two years now and never has one created so much interest from a single group of road users. What is interesting is that every letter and email we have received has pushed back and blamed others for this behaviour. The message, it’s not my fault, someone else makes me do it, is for me more concerning. It indicates a lack of personal ownership and that attitude will not support our goal of reducing deaths and injuries.
My view is that until we stop this blame culture and start to take responsibility for our actions, and become more patient and tolerant, we will continue to see this unacceptable level of deaths and injuries on our roads. Clearly this is not in the best interests of society and if our survey has in some way drawn attention to the need for action then I make no apologies. We have to educate all road users because it is clear that many still do not know the Highway Code. Our release also highlighted that 22% of drivers do not know that stopping over an advanced stop line is illegal. Surely we should be working together to tackle this problem, identifying the wrong behaviours, and educating those that need it.
I am disappointed in your email. As an industry body I would have thought safety would have been high on your agenda, but it would seem you would rather dispute the facts and accuse the IAM of being anti-cycling. To me these are the very attitudes that need to change if we are to reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our roads. Your comments that the roads don’t belong to any one group, and ‘certainly not motorists’, highlights the amount of work that lies ahead.
I reiterate I am striving to save the lives of all road users; irresponsible behaviour, whatever the source shouldn’t be condoned and defended by interest groups. If we don’t all work together to inform and educate we will not make progress, and cyclists will continue to be killed. For me this is unacceptable.