Clickbait and the anti-cycling Dark Lord Wills

Anti-cycling Dark Lord. Credit Kenny Louie FlickrCC

Clickbait and the anti-cycling Dark Lord Wills

Claims of bully boys on bikes terrorising pedestrians, outrageous comments about cyclists in the House of Lords, misleading statistics and journalist clickbait about how cyclists should be banned from the road - and this month’s prize for blame deflection goes to the anti-cycling Dark Lord Wills!

Weary of the articles about cyclists being a   menace who should be banned from the roads, who  think they own the road and can  do anything they like, when they are simply oiks on bikes who should  pay their way?  Assuming you are, wouldn’t it be fantastic if journalists or those posting on social media actually relied on facts rather than rhetoric and stereotype?

Accepting that the authors of such articles, or ‘clickbait’ (sensationalising content to encourage social media sharing and sometimes drive sales), are often more interested in provoking a reaction than in journalistic quality and factual accuracy, presumably we can rely on politicians to set a better example and debate cycling issues without seeking to demonise cyclists, and with a measured approach to safety issues and risks?

Not with Lord Wills, the anti-cycling Dark Lord, a firm believer, it seems, in stereotype over statistics.

Bully boys on bikes terrorising pedestrians

This was Lord Wills’ sensational comment on 23 November 2015 as he demanded assurances that the Transport Minister would  ‘bring some law and order to our pavements’. Referring to his time as MP for North Swindon, prior to shifting seats to the House of Lords, Lord Wills explained that, apart from dog mess, cyclists ‘ terrorising pedestrians’ was the issue that concerned his former constituents most!

It's surprising how North Swindon has changed in the last four years since the 2011 dog mess and pavement cycling wars. Ten days prior to the 2015 General Election, the five North Swindon candidates faced questions at a public hustings event, where predictably the NHS, social housing, immigration, EU membership and education dominated the debate. What a surprise, no mention of pavement cycling as the burning election issue!

It must be getting worse – Lord Wills says so

Lord Wills, however, was adamant that the problem was ‘getting worse’, hence his written question asking the Government  ‘what action they are taking to increase compliance by cyclists with traffic laws’, a question he presumably asked because he didn’t like the answer he received three weeks earlier to his question asking what assessment the Government had made ‘of the number of breaches of traffic laws and regulations by bicyclists’?

There's nothing like a balanced open question displaying no prejudice, but Lord Wills presumably knew the answer to the question before he asked it as he was the Minister of State for Justice from 2007 to 2010, and would be aware that these were operational matters for individual police forces, not centrally held information. But why pass up an opportunity to demonise cyclists with a loaded question?

Peer’s plan for licensing Islabikes and primary school pedalers  

Undeterred by his fellow Peers’ reluctance to accept his apocalyptic vision of pavement cycling Armageddon, Lord Wills cunningly put the burning issue of feral lawbreaking cyclists back before the House of Lords last week, with a re-phrased question about the ‘ possible advantages and disadvantages of licensing bicyclists’. So where’s your four-year-old’s licence?

Don’t bother checking Lord Ahmad’s response. Strangely enough it was almost exactly the same response that Earl Attlee gave in November 2011 when the ever persistent Lord Wills asked the same question, namely that bicycles involved in collisions on the highway are unlikely to cause serious injury to other road users, a  licensing scheme would discourage cycling, the costs of which would outweigh any benefits, and supporting the Bikeability scheme rather than licensing was the way to go. Which bit of that did you not follow in 2011 Lord Wills? 

A matter of great concern to millions of people

So, in March 2012 when these words were spoken in the House of Lords, the debate must have concerned the banking collapse, climate change or another national or global issue. No, we’re back to Lord Wills again and ‘ the selfish and reckless behaviour of cyclists towards pedestrians, particularly when they cycle on pavements’. A ‘growing problem’ usually involving ‘lycra-louts’ showing ‘contempt’ for vulnerable pedestrians. More stereotypes in a Lord Wills speech than a 1970s' sit-com.  

Of course behind the sound-bites, the figures Lord Wills relies upon to justify his portrayal of pedestrian carnage by pedal must be accurate and won’t be misleading? Well, unfortunately the idea with statistics, Lord Wills, is you look at them first, then form your view, not the other way round.

A statistic for every stereotype   

Lord Wills' headline statistic in 2012 was that in the previous five years ‘the number of pedestrians who had been killed or injured by cyclists had increased by two thirds’. Quoting that statistic immediately after referring to the reckless behaviour by cyclists towards pedestrians on pavements implies that you are referring to pedestrian deaths and injuries on pavements. Not so. Lord Wills’ figures include the deaths of pedestrians on roads, where there is no reason to automatically assume fault on the part of the cyclist. If you’re not aware of this, Lord Wills, please note that cyclists are actually allowed on the roads.

When selecting statistics from the pic-and-mix counter, you also need to remember that talking about percentage or fraction increases of very low frequency events is misleading. Here are the facts, obtained from the Government's own published data and CTC’s freedom of information requests:

1. Between 2007 – 2011 (Lord Wills’ five year period), eleven pedestrians died in collisions with cyclists (CWC) in Great Britain, an average of 2.2 per year.

2. The numbers varied from zero in one year to four in another.

3. In the last ten years, 30 pedestrians died in CWC, an average of three a year.

4. Of those 30, only six were on a footway or verge, the other 24 were on roads.

5. Of those six, only two died in the 2007 -2011 period Lord Wills extracted his data from.

6. In the two years prior to 2007, there were actually more pedestrians killed in CWC, six at an average of three per year, with two of those on footways, suggesting the risk from cyclist to pedestrians was not increasing as Lord Wills claims.

Whilst the statistics do not support Lord Wills’ argument, the reality is that the number of incidents are too low to reveal anything of statistical relevance in terms of fractional increases and decreases. But the sound-bite was there. Cyclists cause mayhem on the pavements. A Wills Fact. 

Lord Wills' two-thirds increase claim does, to be fair, also include pedestrians injured in CWC. The average number of pedestrians seriously injured in CWC in his five year period was 66 per year, an increase of 23% from the average of 54 per year in the previous two years. That increase was however due to an increase in CWC on the roads, not the pavement, the focus of Lord Will’s tirade against cyclist and supposed concern. The number of pedestrians seriously injured in CWC on the footway or verge actually fell in the period during which Lord Wills claims there was an increasing problem.   

A revolutionary idea - real statistics!

Here’s a couple of statistics from the Department for Transport for the 2010 – 2014 period that Lord Wills might want to remember before asking further questions about the cycling crime wave:

1. On average each year cycles accounted for about 2% of all urban, non-motorway vehicular traffic, but were involved in only just over  1% of pedestrian fatalities and 1.7% of serious pedestrian casualties.

2. Mile for mile in urban areas motor vehicles were more likely than a cycle to seriously injure a pedestrian, and about twice as likely to kill them.

And bringing the Dark Lord up to date with the 2014 figures:

1. Over 98% of killed or seriously injured pedestrians last year in urban areas were the  result of a collision with a motor vehicle.

2. About  1.9% of all trip stages were made by cycle, but cyclists represented  over 6% of fatalities and 15% of serious injuries.

Perhaps M'Lud your safety concerns could be better directed toward the actual area of risk?    

Cyclists of the world unite!

It would be unfair to conclude a blog which parodies Lord Wills’ comments, particularly from the March 2012 House of Lords’ debate, without pointing out that many of his fellow Peers are of a more favourable disposition towards cyclists, particularly Lord Taverne, who, in extolling the benefits of cycling issued the rallying cry: ‘Cyclists of the world unite – we have nothing to lose but our chains’. Regrettably I fear the humour was lost on Lord Wills.

Clickbait

It is tempting to disregard Lord Wills' comments as irrelevant diatribe from an ill-informed, unelected politician. But, by repeatedly raising the same issue, without regard to the evidence, and without putting into perspective the risks to cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles, he helps create a news agenda and climate in which journalists are able to post their ‘clickbait’ articles with the predictable sensational headlines referred to at the start of this blog. When outrageous comments are made by politicians, there is a green light to others to accept the narrative (think Donald Trump).

The references within this  blog to questions in the House of Lords and Lord Wills’ comments have been sourced from the ‘ They work for you’ website. You might ask whether, in suggesting that dog mess and pavement cycling were his former constituents' principal concerns (the latter a matter of great concern to millions of people requiring parliamentary time and focus which could have been spent on other road safety issues), and in ignoring the evidence regarding actual risk and the real source of danger on the roads, is Lord Wills actually working for you, or just pursuing an anti-cyclist agenda which emboldens others to do likewise?

December’s 'Blame Deflection' Prize

More people are killed in a day by motorists than in a year by cyclists, but Lord Wills seems happy to spend parliamentary time on his pet hate rather than serious safety issues which do concern millions of people. Congratulations Lord Wills. You have won this months’ Blame Deflection Prize.

 

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