'War' on Britain’s roads? BBC cycling doc starts fiery debate

Dec 4, 2012

'Stupid, sensationalist, irresponsible' – but does documentary about cyclists have a point?


A BBC documentary about commuter cyclists to be broadcast this week has been described as "sensationalist" and "irresponsible" by MPs and campaigners who believe it will encourage car drivers to be more aggressive towards some of the most vulnerable road users.

The War on Britain's Roads relies heavily on video footage filmed by cameras mounted on cyclists' helmets. The clips show assaults by angry drivers and near-miss traffic accidents. Leopard Films, the production company responsible for the programme, says: "Viewers are parachuted into the middle of the battle that is raging between two-wheeled road users and their four-wheeled counterparts".

A number of critics have taken issue with the inclusion of a segment in which cycle couriers race each other at high speed, weaving dangerously through traffic. The viewer is led to believe that this, like the other clips, is 'cinema verite' footage shot by cyclists, when in fact it was filmed commercially and has been released on DVD.

The Guardian's bike blogger Peter Walker says the courier footage is "where the programme crosses the line from unbalanced to actively dishonest". He describes the programme as "genuinely one of the more silly, badly-made BBC programmes I've seen in a long time".

Labour MP Ian Austin, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, has written to the incoming BBC Director-General Tony Hall to complain about the documentary's "stupid, sensationalist, simplistic, irresponsible nonsense".

Austin said the courier footage "was about as representative of ordinary cycling in Britain as a James Bond car chase is of ordinary driving".

He added: "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."

The Times asks why The War on Britain's Roads fails to address what many cyclists believe is the factor most responsible for conflict between road users: poor infrastructure and road design. This is despite the fact that some of the cyclists interviewed in the documentary did mention this as a major problem.

Even the driving lobby has objected to The War on Britain's Roads. AA president Edmund King said 1.5 million of his organisation's members cycle regularly when they're not in their cars.

"Why should my personality change when I get out from behind the steering wheel of a car and on to my bike?" King asks. "We are the same people. I do think the problems can be blown out of proportion. We need to talk to each other in a civilised manner, and I don't think a programme like this really helps. It's not a war out there."

However, at least one cyclist is prepared to stick his head above the parapet and declare that The War on Britain's Roads might be onto something. The Independent's Robin Harvie writes about "the issue that cyclists and campaigners would like us to ignore".

He explains: "Cycling is not just a commute, but a way of life. Most of the cyclists you see at the traffic lights want to ride fast. They don't spend thousands of pounds on the latest carbon-fibre frame to keep it in a box. And they will readily admit that part of the reason for getting on a bike in the first place is to beat the traffic.

"There is a thrill to riding a bike, to spotting a gap and weaving around apparently stationary cars pretending to be Bradley Wiggins, as though playing some hyper-realistic video game - all the while plugged into headphones, and without licence plates, which make any misdemeanour virtually untraceable."

Harvie says the mindset of cyclists needs to change: "Would it be too much trouble to raise an arm in acknowledgement when a taxi lets us through?"

The War on Britain's Roads, 9pm, BBC1, Wednesday 5 December

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Disqus - noscript

Some good points. Impressive that the lady who lost her daughter was brave enough to be able to explain her loss to the camera. Some shocking cycling. Some shocking driving. Great to see how intimidating some drivers are to cyclists and how vulnerable cyclists are. Disappointing to see the aggressive attitude of the car / taxi / truck drivers not being addressed by the police. Choice of cyclists seems to be accept intimidation/abuse or risk assault by not accepting it? Encouraging to see the improvement in HGV drivers training and equipment. My impression of accidents involving HGV's is that is a genuine mistake by a careful professional driver. My major complaint, as expected, is with the BBC. Why the hell didn't they didn't explain that the courier 'race' video was a staged illegal event for a DVD. It was not clearly differentiated from the rest of the video footage.