The AA’s “Think Bikes” campaign: What it tells us about “road safety”.

bicycle-sticker-440x           motorbike-sticker-440x 

Photos: AA Charitable Trust

 One million wing-mirror stickers are being sent out by the AA to remind drivers to watch out for two-wheelers on the road. The campaign is based on a poll for the AA showing that nine out of ten motorists admit that when driving, “it is sometimes hard to see cyclists”, with 55 percent of motorists claiming that they are often “surprised when a cyclist appears from nowhere.” It’s nice to see AA president Edmund King say that: “The AA Think Bikes campaign is definitely needed when half of drivers are often surprised when a cyclist or motorcyclist ‘appears from nowhere’. Those on two wheels never appear from nowhere (our emphasis) so as drivers we need to be more alert to other road users and this is where our stickers act as a daily reminder”.

So is this an unequivocal step forward? The main feature of this, as with so many other similar campaigns, is what it tells us about the beliefs underlying what passes for “road safety” – beliefs which we have to challenge.

So let’s take a look at the campaign and what underlies it in some detail:


What should be happening with wing mirrors?

Let me quote one of the commenters on this post :

If, on your driving test, you failed to check your left door mirror, before turning left you would not pass your test and couldn’t drive unaccompanied (by an experienced licence holding driver) on the road. How come once you pass you never need check a mirror again? (Unless you have a stupid sticker to remind you). If you need that then you shouldn’t be driving on the road as you are dangerous to other road users.

 Now, that may seem a bit perfectionist. But it is what is required in terms of drivers’ obligations to the safety of cyclists and motorcyclists. It is stated clearly in the Highway Code in Rules 159,161,163, 169, 179, 180, 182, 184, and 202. It is simply what should be happening. As the Institute of Advanced Motorists spokesman said

 “The IAM welcomes any campaign which raises awareness of how vulnerable cyclists can be around motor vehicles. Reminders can be useful but the best drivers should already be looking out for cyclists at all times.(my emphasis)” And why just “the best”?

Would we accept this with other types of safety regime?

Let us pause briefly and think of what we would expect from other types of safety regime. Consider Health and Safety at Work regimes operating in workplaces. Or safety under maritime safety regulations. Or with aviation safety regulations. Or safety on the railways.

Let’s say that third parties have their lives regularly put at risk by operators of machinery in the workplace (or airplanes, ships or trains) because they fail to engage in an operation as simple as using their mirrors, in a manner which they have been required to do (and tested on) when they start their careers (in the workplace or on airplanes etc.). We think the issue has to be the extent to which this unsafe behaviour happens irrespective of the numbers of cyclists and motorcyclists hurt or killed by this malpractice. But the fact remains that it is substantial. For example, in the TfL Cycle Safety Action Plan (2010) we see that  a large part of the biggest type of conflict (close proximity conflict)  leading to cyclist Killed and Seriously injured casualties is the following:

o Cycle and other vehicle travelling alongside each other (12%)

o Other vehicle turns left across the path of cycle (9%)

o Other vehicle changes lane to the left across the path of cycle (3%)

o Cycle and other vehicle collide when both turning left (2%)

 (percentages are of all cyclist KSIs).

Plainly non-use of nearside wing mirrors has some relevance here in these cases.

So, if such unwillingness or inability to follow the regulations, with such actual or potential consequences for the safety of others, were to occur under these other regimes, would we be satisfied with a campaign like this? One which is essentially just a polite reminder to the operators of dangerous equipment or practices by a sticker placed on the equipment which was not being used?

 My suggestion is: No, we wouldn’t.


What might the effects of this campaign actually be?

The reason for my scepticism is not simply one of principle, but one based on a concern about its likely lack of effect. Some, like Chris Boardman, appear to think that “This campaign will undoubtedly contribute to promoting safer driving habits on the road.” Undoubtedly?

What we have is some 4% of the UK driving public being presented with stickers. There is no evidence that placing the stickers will actually lead to previous non-users becoming users of wing mirrors. Then, as always with road user safety, those most likely to change habits will be those most willing to do so in the first place. Is the behavioural change actually likely to be anything more than minimal at best?

One of the reasons why it is unlikely to be more than minimal – if that – is the background set of beliefs underlying it.

All in it together? The mythology of “One Tribe”.

The key theme expressed by the AA and British Cycling is the idea that lots of cyclists also drive cars, and vice versa, and that recognising this will lead to reduced casualties. My view is that this is a dangerously misleading approach to safety on the road.

It conceals the fact that when people are using different modes of transport, they have markedly different potential to endanger, hurt or kill others. The fact that they use more than one form of transport is at best irrelevant. Indeed, the fact that the same people are both far more likely to endanger, hurt or kill when they are driving than when they are cycling is part of the problem. Cyclists are more unlikely to see themselves as part of the problem when they drive precisely because they are also cyclists.

One way of looking at this is to consider pedestrians instead. Most motorists know that they also walk, as indeed they do. Has this led to no danger being presented to pedestrians by motorists?

The central theme of Road Danger Reduction is that there is a fundamental difference between use of those modes which have a significant potential to endanger, hurt or kill (essentially the motorised ones) and use of  those (essentially cycling or walking) which have a far lower potential to endanger, hurt or kill. The “Evens Stevens” approach is based on denying this.

Underlying this “Even Stevens” approach is a fundamentally patronising attitude. According to the AA’s chief executive, Chris Jansen  cyclists have to “recognise when they have been well looked after on Britain’s roads by motorists” – as if drivers are doing them a big favour by not threatening their lives by rule or law breaking behaviour. A duty of care becomes “looking after”. (This is the “New Deal” on safety which the AA offer cyclists).

 What could work?

There is a definite need for drivers to use their wing mirrors as part of their driving activity. It is a timely reminder with TfL’s encouragement of doing exactly the opposite here with its “Cyclists stay back” stickers  It is also good to see the AA oppose a SMIDSY excuse by stating that “Those on two wheels never appear from nowhere”.  And as Chris Boardman says: “Looking left and giving way to cyclists is a crucial part of improving safety on the roads. This is what happens on the continent and it should become part of our culture too. Of course, this rule is already written into the Highway Code – we just need to ensure that people are following it.”

But the crucial issue is whether this actually changes driver behaviour or not, fitting into a programme of genuine accountability of those responsible for actually and potentially endangering, hurting or killing others. Such “road safety” initiatives will fail if they are simply polite requests to a minority of drivers who may or may not choose to follow them, particularly if they are embedded in a culture which is based on the “Even Stevens” school of obscuring the differences in potential lethality between different road user groups. While the AA are being less arrogant than in previous initiatives, they still have a historywhich makes them dubious supporters of real road safety.

 As Roger Geffen of the CTC puts it:CTC absolutely agrees that this is the right approach, but this doesn’t mean cyclists should be doffing their caps to drivers when drivers behave responsibly – responsible behaviour should be the norm.” And the CTC point out: “…experience shows that awareness campaigns work best when supported by related enforcement activity. (Successful) campaigns…strengthen public support for enforcement activity, while the related enforcement activity reinforces the impact of the campaign by punishing irresponsible drivers who ignore the message”.


4 thoughts on “The AA’s “Think Bikes” campaign: What it tells us about “road safety”.

  1. Sarah Swift


    I agree that enforcement trumps appeals to “be nice” but I’m not entirely sure how exactly one goes about enforcing mirror checks. Other than by really clamping down hard on the “came out of nowhere” defence and making it plain that it will be seen more as an admission of guilt than as a potentially valid excuse. (And in that scenario: what if a motorist DID check their mirror, but should have performed a shoulder check as well, and didn’t?)

    This is a German road safety video that focusses on the need for car drivers to perform shoulder checks before turning (not just mirror checks!) in order to spot straight-on cyclists: German cycle paths often seem to have been designed as if the express intention of the designer was to conceal cyclists in the blind spots of motorists, so I can see why the campaign designers went for shoulder checks rather than just mirror checks. At the same time, I suspect that a lot of motorists find them physically difficult to execute. If behavioural change campaigns are of limited utility at the best of times, as you’ve observed with reference to the AA mirrors campaign, perhaps this shoulder check one would have needed to be flanked by physiotherapy vouchers for it to make any difference whatsoever.

    I’m not convinced Boardman is right about the necessary legislation all being in place already. Or at least I think that its wording could potentially be tightened up. What I think makes German motorists (often, but not always) check and check again before turning across my path as a pedestrian or cyclist is the fact that they have learned to yield to pedestrians intending to cross side roads rather than just to pedestrians already crossing. So they habitually pay attention to what is happening on the footpaths and cycle paths. I think UK (and Irish) legislation on how turning drivers interact with straight-on pedestrians could be improved, and I think that cyclists would benefit if it was.


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