Andy Chivers of Cyclox looks at how cycling collisions are reported in the media

In those far off days before Covid struck, when Cyclox used to hold stalls at fairs and festivals (Headington, Jericho, Florence Park) one of the recurring themes was ‘I would cycle but it is too dangerous’.

Another was ‘I’m not fit enough to ride a bike’.

Neither are true, but perception is powerful.

The media reports collisions involving bikes, knowing they are of interest to their audience.

We read or hear about collisions at The Plain and many other roads in Oxford and Oxfordshire. People who already cycle, have their own experience and pleasure to counterbalance the anxieties the reports create, but people who don’t cycle remember them, which reinforces their concerns.

The Plain in east Oxford is the source of lots of incidents between bike riders and car drivers, perhaps not surprisingly as thousands of bikes and cars go round it every day.

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It looks scary to someone who doesn’t cycle.

The alterations made several years ago were intended to increase cycle numbers by 20 per cent, which hasn’t happened.

Andy Chivers of Cyclox volunteering as a mechanic

Andy Chivers of Cyclox volunteering as a mechanic

But reports of collisions there will rarely mention how many cyclists pass through safely every day – statistically a cyclist is killed about every one to two million miles which would take most of us about a thousand years to ride.

We often hear the word ‘accident’ applied to crashes.

But the word accident needs to be consigned to history – collision is now preferred, since ‘accident’ suggests something that is unavoidable. Most collisions are not accidental, being due to excess speed or someone being distracted. Cyclox encourages and expects cyclists to obey the Highway Code, but extra responsibility has to be taken by those in charge of faster, heavier vehicles to anticipate situations which put less protected people are at risk.

In many European countries ‘presumed liability’ recognises this responsibility in law – the presumption is that the cyclist or pedestrian is not to blame in a collision, and the onus is on the driver of the motor vehicle to prove otherwise.

The negative perceptions of cycling can be heightened by the language used by reporters.

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A recent report by Laura Laker at the University of Westminster advises journalists to think carefully when reporting crashes.

For example, it is misleading to say ‘a cyclist hit by a car’ when it was the driver who was responsible, not the car.

A better way to report this is to say ‘cyclist hit by driver of car’.

Another example is describing the clothes that cyclist wear or their lack of protective gear.

Reporting that a cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet or hi-viz gives people the impression that some responsibility, or blame, for the crash lies with the rider.

Conversations with drivers often refer to this expectation – the revealing quote ‘I saw a cyclist on the road and I couldn’t see them at all’.

We know that reporters want to create a sense of heightened tension, but using words like ‘battle’ or ‘war’ to describe conditions on the road is likely to encourage more aggressive behaviour.

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Language is important, and to get more people cycling, reporters have an important contribution in using words in a way that helps reduce the perception that cycling is dangerous and cyclists are to blame for collisions.