The Active travel Academy at Westminster University along with partners in road policing, academics, media experts and cycling charities have put together new guidelines for reporting of road collisions. These guidelines reflect that whilst good reporting does exist, much reporting on collisions and road crime is accepting of road danger and dangerous driving whilst simultaneously reproducing negative and dehumanising portrayals of both cyclists and pedestrians.
The guidelines note these problems and encourage four really useful principles: 1) impartiality, 2) discrimination, 3) accuracy and 4) reporting on crime. This comes down to things like avoiding the word ‘accident’ – which is rarely the appropriate term – and making sure we acknowledge human involvement in collisions. Similarly, it can be all too easy for coverage and conversation on mobility to put people into single mode boxes, presenting people as only a ‘cyclist’ or only a ‘motorist’, when of course for many they might walk to the shop, cycle to work and drive for a leisure activity for example.
As a group of researchers, we at Healthy Active Cities at the University of Salford welcome these guidelines. As academics working in active and sustainable travel research, we hope that any academic work on or related to road collisions will be written and spoken in accordance with the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines. We endeavour to incorporate these principles into our own writing as well as into our analysis of others’ communications. We will continue to use this language when speaking to the media or general public as we are often approached to comment on transport-related issues and will promote this to others doing the same.
We recognise the importance of terminology in shaping perceptions and structuring debate. A reductionist vocabulary of ‘pedestrians’, ‘cyclists’ and ‘drivers’ can engender a tribalism on the road that implies that people are defined by a single mode of transport instead of encouraging people to use the most appropriate mode for particular journeys. It can dehumanise people walking and cycling and lead to exclusion or, in the worst case, justification of negligent behaviour and violence. Reportage can embed perceptions that walking and cycling are intrinsically dangerous and require expensive safety equipment: this can act as a deterrent to more people seeing active travel as an option for them. A focus on the ‘bicycle’ can perpetuate ableist assumptions that overlook the range and types of cycles available and the potential for disabled people to participate in and benefit from active travel. The media also has a tendency to frame infringements on driving practice, such as speeding and pavement parking, as unfair or a ‘war on the motorist’ when in fact these policies are there for the benefit of all road and pavement users. We therefore anticipate that these clear guidelines will help to shape a fairer and better-informed debate on road safety and active travel.
We feel the guidelines are a positive step forward and support their use. We suggest that specific mention is made to the importance of the word ‘cycle’ as a more inclusive term which more readily captures the variety of cycle types and their users. Helping to avoid the tendency to generalise and present an image of the ‘typical cyclist’ on a bicycle, which can be a barrier for many people as this is often portrayed as a confident male in specialist clothing. We note that the wording of the guidelines themselves already adopts this approach and also makes specific reference to the often negative connotations of the word ‘cyclist’. We support this approach, and in relation to point 2.2 would therefore suggest that the words ‘where possible’ are removed: there is no reason to characterise someone on a cycle as anything other than a person.
In our response we primarily offered support as we think careful and respectful reporting around mobility, travel and people is crucial to enable productive discussion on future mobility. We know issues like climate change, air pollution, public health and road safety mean we need to make changes to our allocation of road space, but we need that discussion to be open to everyone and it’s clear that has not always been achieved.
We’ve recently also seen the government consultation on the Highway Code which sought to update parts of the code to improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. The primary change being proposed is the explicit introduction of a hierarchy of road users, with pedestrians recognised as the most vulnerable road user. The consultation made specific reference to the need to maintain personal responsibility for using our roads (and this includes pavements, cycle paths etc.) which we don’t disagree with in principle. These changes and increased attention being paid to walking and cycling should be seen as part of a broad shift towards encouraging forms of more active and/or sustainable travel, and as Healthy Active Cities researchers we welcome that. But we wonder if there’s opportunity to pair these two issues; moving our language forward around the reporting on roads and road users, together with our policy making language. All too often we see walking and cycling prioritised, sometimes quickly becoming cycling infrastructure. We think more could be done here to ensure walking, rolling, running, playing and cycling all feature in our discussions and policy making for our streets.
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