BikeBiz has had an advanced screening of Wednesday’s prime time BBC documentary ‘War on Britain’s Roads.’ It’s not an uplifting or edifying documentary. The producers have chosen to use red light running ‘alley ca’t footage filmed in London by a professional American film-maker but the provenance of this footage is not made clear in the documentary, which has been promoted as using only user-generated footage. (An alley cat is an unofficial urban cycle race where no road rules are adhered to – these events are rare, some are put on DVDs and sold to fixie riders and others who get their kicks this way – it’s not normal behaviour and such races are rare in the US and even rarer in the UK).
Motorists – and cyclists – are shown the alley cat footage and all agree it’s outrageous behaviour but no doubt viewers will be left with the impression that cyclists are often to blame for the increasing number of cyclist road deaths.
It’s a programme that will bring a tear to your eye. It features two stories of cyclists killed by drivers. One is used as a thread throughout the documentary; the other has a poignant twist-in-the-tale. The first story shows how a concrete mixer turned left into the path of a clearly innocent female cyclist. She was killed and her mother has campaigned ever since for safety devices to be fitted to lorries: the company responsible for killing Cynthia Barlow’s daughter Alex has now fitted proximity sensors to its cement trucks.
Barlow said British roads were part of "a competitive space, when they should be cooperative space." She also said the death of her daughter "wasn’t an accident, it was a preventable tragedy."
Few people will want to take up cycling in urban areas after seeing this documentary, which focuses solely on crashes and bad behaviour not on the positive reasons why many people may be cycling in the first place. Cyclists are shown as frequent and habitual red light runners, and there’s a commentary back-up for this, but when a driver is shown running a red light this isn’t remarked upon. While the producers of the documentary could have balanced the footage of cyclists running red lights with footage of motorists doing the same (easily findable on YouTube), they chose not to do so. The film makers also showed cyclists running over two pedestrians – one was crossing a cycle path at the time – but there’s no balancing footage of motorists knocking over pedestrians.
The film makers also binned footage from traffic psychologist Ian Walker. He spent six hours with the film crew but none of what would have been sage and sensible comments made it into the Leopard Films documentary, produced for primetime BBC slot.
The documentary features well-known helmetcam wearers, such as Magnatom, Traffic Droid and CycleGaz.
Traffic Droid is shown confronting miscreant motorists, and miscreant cyclists. One of his videos shows him being cut up by white vans on either side of him. This brings back memories of an earlier incident when he could have been killed and he breaks down and cries.
A bike cop is shown catching cyclists running reds and motorists driving while talking on mobile phones.
The film makers don’t have a very firm grasp of the Highway Code, portraying cyclists "claiming their lane" as some sort of deviant behaviour. The commentary says: "Many cyclists feel under threat, even in cycle lanes. In response, some are trying to take control of the road, even if that may annoy other road users."
Cyclegaz explains why cyclists do this (mostly for the safety of themselves and oncoming cars) but the film makers slot in a smirk of his, filmed in close-up.
The documentary showed footage of incidents to the motorists and cyclists featured in the programme. They were shown the violence used against cyclists by road rage drivers; they were shown examples of bad driving and examples of bad cycling. Some of the motorists winced at the violence but seemed to think cyclists brought on some of the antipathy themselves.
However, it’s footage of ‘alley cat’ fixie riders stunt-riding through London filmed by Lucas Brunelle, an American film maker, that will probably be the lasting impression for many viewers. Even the cyclists said they wanted to punch such riders. The BBC doc makes it look as though the American footage, shot in London three years ago, was the same sort of helmetcam footage provided by the amateur helmetcam wearers used in the rest of the documentary. This illegal, staged, stunt-riding footage is on loop in the programme, which would be little different to the producers inserting a Hollywood car chase and asserting that was normal behaviour from motorists.
Ian Austin MP – who has seen the film – said the documentry was “stupid, sensationalist, simplistic, irresponsible nonsense.”
Austin, the joint chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, said the documentary "presents a commercially-produced film of reckless stunt cycling in London as ordinary footage as if it is normal behaviour by everyday cyclists."
The MP said this “about as representative of ordinary cycling in Britain as a James Bond car chase is of ordinary driving.”
“I am not in favour of banning programmes, but I don’t see why garbage like this should be produced in the first place and if the BBC insists on showing it, they have a duty to ensure that it is placed in context and the real issues around cycling and driving in Britain are discussed properly on its other programmes.
“I cycle in London every day I’m there and have cycled all over Britain and whilst I do see drivers and cyclists do things they shouldn’t, I have never seen some of the things they present as everyday occurrences.
“Nine out of ten cyclists also drive cars, so it is not just dangerous and irresponsible to promote a culture of confrontation on the roads which will make cycling and driving both more dangerous, but also stupid and inaccurate.
“All road users should obey the rules of the road and treat each other with consideration and respect. That’s the message we should be giving.”