16 September 2009

Fear of Cycling 02 - Constructing Fear of Cycling

We've enlisted the help of sociologist Dave Horton, from Lancaster University, as a guest writer. Dave has written a brilliant assessment of Fear of Cycling in an essay and we're well pleased that he fancies the idea of a collaboration. We'll be presenting Dave's essay in five parts.

Dave Horton is a sociologist and lover of all things cycling. He is part of the Cycling and Society Research Group, which has pioneered a ‘cultural turn’ in cycling studies and which holds an annual symposium in the UK. Dave works at Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, on the project ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’. He tries to do, to write about, and to promote all kinds of cycling, because cycling is essentially good.

Fear of Cycling -
Constructing Fear of Cycling - by Dave Horton - Part 02 of 05

Fear of cycling belongs to a fearful culture (Glassner 2000; Massumi 1993). UK sociologist Frank Furedi (2002) argues that western societies have become dominated by a ‘culture of fear’. We have never been so safe, yet never have we been so fearful. ‘“Be careful” dominates our cultural imagination’ (ibid.). We belong to ‘a culture that continually inflates the danger and risks facing people’ (ibid.). ‘Activities that were hitherto seen as healthy and fun … are now declared to be major health risks’ (ibid.). What is more, ‘to ignore safety advice is to transgress the new moral consensus’ (ibid.).[1]

Our fears are produced (Sandercock 2002), which is why they are subject to such variation. Obviously, some fears take more work to produce than others. Most people fear a lunging shadow down a dark alleyway. Fewer people fear waste incinerators, nanotechnologies or the policies of the World Trade Organisation (Goodwin et al 2001, 13) because those fears are more difficult to produce. Fear of cycling is neither inevitable nor ‘natural’ and needs similarly to be produced. It also always exists relative to other fears.

For instance, cycling in London became substantially less fearful, relative to travel by bus and underground train, in the wake of the bomb attacks on public transport in July 2005; consequently the level of cycling increased significantly immediately after the bombings, but then dropped back down again (though remaining above its previous level) once people's fears of travelling by underground and bus had subsided (Milmo 2006). Fear of cycling is most effectively produced through constructions of cycling as a dangerous practice. By saying that cycling is constructed as a dangerous practice, I am not denying that cyclists are really injured and killed on the roads; rather I am noting how people’s fears of these (im)probabilities of injury and death are culturally constructed.

The rest of this section explores three ways in which cycling is constructed as dangerous, and thus a contemporary fear of cycling is produced; road safety education, helmet promotion campaigns, and the increasing separation of cycling from motorised traffic. The irony, of course, is that these interventions are responses to a fear of cycling, clearly aimed at increasing cycling’s safety. But I will demonstrate how, contrary to intentions, each intervention actually tends to exacerbate fear of cycling, and sometimes literally invokes it in order to promote the ‘solution’. Fear is also used for financial profit in the sale of safety equipment; for example, adverts for high visibility clothing cite the numbers of cyclists killed and injured on UK roads, and claim starkly, ‘you must be seen’.

Constructing Fear of Cycling, 1: Road Safety Education
With accelerating automobility, the tension between the street as a space for communal sociality and as a space for cars had, by the 1930s, become acute. The unruly social worlds of the street and the car’s increasingly voracious appetite for space could not peaceably co-exist, and one or other needed to be tamed. [2]

Motoring organisations such as the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club argued that children should be taught to keep out of the car’s way, and road safety education was born, as an alternative to preserving streets for people (some local attempts were made to institute the latter, an early - but not widely followed - example being the Salford play streets scheme of the 1930s).

The transformation of streets for people into roads for cars, perhaps inevitably, produced death and injury. By 1936 concerns about the alarming rise in cyclist casualties had led to the idea of a cycling proficiency scheme, eventually adopted nationally in 1948 (CTC 2005). To stem the carnage, cyclists must be trained to deal with the new, dangerous conditions. But things could have been otherwise. A 1947 book by J. S. Dean, former Chairman of the Pedestrians’ Association, is instructive here. In his ‘study of the road deaths problem’, Murder Most Foul, Dean's basic tenet is that, ‘as roads are only “dangerous” by virtue of being filled with heavy fast moving motor vehicles, by far the greatest burden of responsibility for avoiding crashes, deaths and injury on the roads should lie with the motorist’ (Peel n.d., 3).

Yet road safety education concentrates not on the drivers of vehicles, but on those who they have the capacity to kill. Dean saw how placing responsibility for road danger on those outside of motorised vehicles might lead, by stealth, to placing of culpability on those groups, and Murder Most Foul is a tirade against the placing of responsibility for road accidents on children.

The dominant assumptions on which UK road safety was originally based have remained in place. Today, rather than producing strategies to tame the sources of danger on the road, road safety education tries instead to instil in 'the vulnerable', primarily school children, a fear of motorised traffic, and then to teach them tactics to escape from road dangers as best they can. The title of the UK Government’s highway code for young road users is Arrive Alive (Department for Transport 2000a). The message such a title sends to children is not how much fun and freedom can be derived from sustainable modes of mobility such as cycling and walking; rather, it tells children that the world outside is a dangerous place, full of potential accidents, and they had better make sure they ‘arrive alive’.

The introductory paragraph to Lancashire County Council’s child cyclist training scheme, Passport to Safer Cycling, likewise seems deliberately designed to instil fear. It states how in Lancashire 'the number of cycle casualties reported to the police in 2001 totalled 421; of these 141 (33%) were children less than 16 years of age. Information from hospital casualty departments suggest that there are many more casualties that do not get reported' (Lancashire County Council 2004). The stated aims of the scheme have nothing to do with pleasure (in fact, an objective is to help the child ‘understand the difference between riding and playing on cycles’), or with thinking about and attempting to change the current uses of the road. On the contrary, they focus firmly on the practices and psychology of the individual child: ‘to encourage and develop safe cycling’ and ‘to enable trainees to consider their personal safety and develop a positive attitude towards other road users’ (Lancashire County Council 2004).

Roads are full of danger, and it is children who must be afraid and take care. Road safety educators inculcate ‘safety-consciousness’ in various ways: they provide children with a variety of reflective gadgets; children are encouraged to wear high visibility clothing and cycle helmets; and exercises in road safety literature teach children to walk or cycle by convoluted routes because they are ‘safer’ (see Department for Transport 2000b). The road safety industry thus strives to reduce casualties by inculcating fear in children, and giving them not incentives but disincentives to walk and cycle.

A minority alternative approach, road danger reduction, concentrates instead on making travelscapes less dangerous per se, by for example, reducing the numbers and speeds of cars, and improving enforcement of speed limits. In other words, current road safety education, perhaps reframed as citizenship studies in mobility, could be very different. We do not have to teach tomorrow’s adults to fear cars, or to adapt to the inevitability of motorised metal objects tearing through their lives by incarcerating themselves in such vehicles (Hillman et al 1990).

The Cyclists’ Touring Club fought through the first half of the twentieth century against the compulsory use of rear lights by cyclists. One leaflet from the 1930s (Cyclists’ Touring Club n.d.a) states that the ‘use of any rear warning weakens the sense of responsibility of the driver of an overtaking vehicle to avoid running down a vehicle or pedestrian in front of him’. We could educate children into putting such lost accountability onto the car. The relevant argument, then as now, is that danger comes not from cycling, but from cars. The compulsion on the cyclist to ‘be seen and be safe’ puts the onus to change on the wrong group. The resonance with the highly controversial contemporary issue of helmets is clear.

[1] I have the increasingly common advice to ‘always wear a cycle helmet’ in mind here, and that is an issue which I will consider in some detail later in this series.
[2] We will see later how also at this time a similar tension between the bicycle and the car was becoming pronounced.

- CTC (2005) ‘Special Feature: CTC and Cycle Training’, Annual Report, Year Ending 30th September 2004, 2.
Cyclists' Touring Club (n.d. a) Leaflet 2 - Rear Warnings, from leaflet series 'In Defence of Cyclists' (London: Cyclists' Touring Club).
- Department for Transport (2000a) Arrive Alive: A Highway Code for Young Road Users (London: Department for Transport).
- Department for Transport (2000b) Road Safety Activity Book 2 (London: HMSO).
- Furedi, F. (2002) Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation, revised edition (London and New York: Continuum).
- Glassner, B. (2000) The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things (New York: Basic Books).
- Goodwin, J., J. Jasper and F. Polletta (2001) 'Introduction: Why Emotions Matter', in J. Goodwin, J. Jasper and F. Polletta (eds), Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements, 1-24 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
- Hillman, M., J. Adams and J. Whitelegg (1990) One False Move …: A Study of Children’s Independent Mobility (London: Policy Studies Institute).
- Lancashire County Council (2004) Passport to Safer Cycling (accessed at http://www.lancashire.gov.uk/environment/roadsafety/training/passport.asp, 19/10/04).
- Massumi, B. (ed.) (1993) The Politics of Everyday Fear (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
- Milmo, C. (2006) 'Revolution! Britain embraces the bicycle', in The Independent, 7th June, pp. 1-3 (available online at http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/transport/article656400.ece; last accessed 4/2/07).
- Peel, H. (n.d.) Motorcarnage (accessed at http://www.motorcarnage.org.uk/motorcarnage/JSDean.html, 7/6/04).
- Sandercock, L. (2002) 'Difference, Fear and Habitus: A Political Economy of Urban Fears', in J. Hillier and E. Rooksby (eds), Habitus: A Sense of Place, 203-18 (Aldershot: Ashgate).

Fear of Cycling - Part 01 - Introduction
Fear of Cycling - Part 02 - Constructing Fear of Cycling / Road Safety 'Education'
Fear of Cycling - Part 03 - Helmet Promotion Campaigns
Fear of Cycling - Part 04 - New Cycling Spaces
Fear of Cycling - Part 05 - Making Cycling Strange


Matt Moran said...

Very interesting read Dave. In relation to cycle training for children, Bikeability (http://www.bikeability.org.uk/) is now the leading standard and something we here in Lancaster deliver to many schools.

The focus of Bikeability is for children to "undertake quality cycle training to ride safely and well on today's roads". Having delivered Bikeability courses myself I can say that the majority of children ride without fear once they have achieved the outcomes of the training.

I think the difficulties come when trying to convince parents that 'little Susie' has completed her training which means she understands how to ride well and is perfectly capable of riding on the road. Until we can convince parents that their children are adequately trained to ride on the roads it is a difficult task.

Lancaster with Morecambe Cycling Town

kfg said...

It has been noted, by myself and many others, that the way we raised our kids back in the day would likely get us arrested for child abuse nowadays; because we denied them safety.

I would note, however, that the way they raise kids nowadays would likely get them arrested for child abuse back in the day; because they deny them competence.

ModelCarGuy said...

I had to laugh at this -

"The Cyclists’ Touring Club fought through the first half of the twentieth century against the compulsory use of rear lights by cyclists. One leaflet from the 1930s (Cyclists’ Touring Club n.d.a) states that the ‘use of any rear warning weakens the sense of responsibility of the driver of an overtaking vehicle to avoid running down a vehicle or pedestrian in front of him’."

Just a cyclist said...

Lights! They appear to have fallen into oblivion in this era of hard-headedness...

dr2chase said...

It's collective vs individual again -- individually, we are safer if we run lights, wear helmets, "ride as if you are invisible", dress in screaming yellow, etc -- but this reduces collective safety, when it shifts driver expectations, normalizes paranoia, and reduces the number of cyclists on the road.

The problem, when instructing children on how to ride in the US, is that they have to be taught how to ride with drivers and attitudes that we have, not the ones that we'd like to have. The way out of a prisoner's dilemma is to change the game, and not to expect people to act irrationally.

3Speed said...

Thanks Dave. Your assertions mirror my own beliefs. I look forward to the next installments.

Last weekend I stumbled across a "bicycle safety" video from 1950 on YouTube. Out of curiosity I did some searching and found additional "bicycle safety" videos from the 1960's, 70's, 80's, 90's and today.

Watching them is very interesting-- one can see a clear progression away from the notion of cycling as a normal, practical means of transport and towards the positioning of it as an exciting, dangerous, extreme sport.

The 1950 video is essentially a straightforward drivers training video that seeks to identify common hazards and suggest behavior to avoid them. By the 1980's the notion of a bike as vehicle or means of practical transportation have been dropped. There is no attempt to address behavior (the source of all potential threats to safety), the only message is wear a helmet.

Seeing the 60 years of videos in the context of each other is like a study in the progression of a propaganda campaign. Once ideas are instilled there is an increasing level of abstraction and a refining of the core message of fear.

If anyone is interested, I have posted the videos to my blog:

Anonymous said...

An excellent series. For an interesting analysis of the fear-culture, see "Beyond Fear" by Bruce Schneier. The book doesn't address bicycling at all, but its discussion of perceived risks versus actual risks is well-done and helpful.

Adam said...


dr2chase said...

In a similar vein, we have here some advice for preventing sexual assault, guaranteed (via Long Story Short Pier).

Anonymous said...

"danger comes not from cycling, but from cars"

Hurrah! Reading this gives me the feeling of stepping back through the looking-glass into the real world again. At last things are beginning to look the right way round.

When I was a child, we moved around with a freedom which today's kids in the UK - who are both cocooned in and effectively corralled by car culture, find hard to believe. They literally don't dream of the physical freedom and confidence to move around that we took for granted 30-40 years ago.

Hopefully, if parents as citizens and as drivers can begin to see things from this perspective, it could be the start of some liberation for the kids.

peteathome said...

I think a lot of western countries use to have a bicycling culture that was lost due to a lot of reasons, possibly including the induced fears mentioned in this article.

When I was a kid in the USA back in the 50s, we all knew how to safely ride a bike. We knew you were suppose to ride with traffic, not run lights, not ride out into the road from a sidewalk, etc. We picked this up from our parents and other bicyclists. We didn't need a training course to figure this out.

But in the 70s I started to see a lot of strange bicycling behavior - people riding against traffic, riding on sidewalks ( when I was young, only little kids rode their tricycles on the sidewalk), wear bright colors and using flashing lights, etc.

So the question is, how to restore a basic safe bicycling culture without inducing fear? How can people again reduce their low bicycling rate of injury and death to insignificant levels by again learning which side of the road to bicycle on, how to safely make turns, avoid mistakes of other road users, etc. All the things I knew as a kid from osmosis.

Is there a way to reteach this culture without making people think that bicycling is a dangerous thrill sport like skydiving?

Adrienne Johnson said...

@peteathome- yes. There is a way. Get out and ride your bike. Don't make a big deal about it. Just throw on your clothes, eat your breakfast, get on your bike and go. Along the way, smile and wave at people. When you arrive at work, don't make a big deal about sweat, tell your coworkers about how you got to see the autumn light starting to change. Show people the side of cycling that appeals to us all.

Anonymous said...

Dave, Dave...

All your scholarship is in the service of an utterly false premise. It is a colossal waste of time. You are preaching to a like minded group of arrogant Luddites. Kindly stop.

Mikael said...

hey! the troll is back! cool!

spiderleggreen said...

Thanks, great posts! It's a tough road against "common sense". "That's the way it's alway been..." Feel like a lone wolf, howling in the woods? Well, thanks for stepping through the fear of offending the village, and pointing out the construction of so called common sense.

vanorak said...

I have been teaching National Standards Bikeability to primary school children throughout Greater Manchester on a daily basis, for over two years. During this time, I have witnessed some appalling behaviour by both cyclists and motorists alike. In my honest opinion, the majority of children at this age do not have the intuitive road sense and awareness necessary to commute to and from school, on busy routes, at peak times. While Bikeability training goes some way to address this, time and experience are the only real means by which they acquire the judgement and foresight required. Regarding integration versus separation, having spent the summer cycling in the Netherlands,along with countless others, the answer is self evident.

Dan Gent said...

ah anomynous, lets have a discussion then about the luddites then and their plans for the GRADUAL introduction of machinery, rather than the incredibly quick industrialisation that was the hand weaver's lament.
i can only think that you are advocating car use, as though something which relies on oil can be anything but soon to go ;^)