02 December 2009

Safe but Somehow Scary

The Culture of Fear has a firm grip on even an otherwise rational land like Denmark.

According to a recent survey every fourth parent in the country doesn't feel it safe enough to send their children to school alone on foot or on bike.

This is despite the fact that it has never been safer to walk or cycle in Denmark. The Danish Road Safety Council carried out the survey. It's ironic that the development of this fear culture is largely their own work.

Their warm embrace of a certain type of fear campaigning, especially regarding cycling but also including traffic in general is said to have caused the change in perception in the population.

In Denmark we cycle 30% less than we did in 1990. This is a national figure - things are quite different in cities like Copenhagen and Odense where cycle traffic, for example, has boomed in that period. If we still cycled that 30% we'd save 1500 lives a year - and that number is currently being revised and will end up being a lot higher.

Since the early 1990's, the Road Safety Council's scare tactics are directly responsible for the sad fact that the number of children driven to school has risen 200%.

Now they're scrambling to get parents to change their minds back to pre-1990 perceptions, especially regarding getting kids to school.

They are now encouraging parents to train their kids better to walk or cycle to school and have issued statements this week about how it's the parents fault or responsibility to teach their kids better and to practice walking or cycling the routes to school. In order to teach them to be confident in the traffic.

Ironic, isn't it? You spend two decades trying to scare the shit out of parents and then you have to come out and say, "No, no... it's okay. Really!"

"There are far too many parents who drive their children to school and who are so busy in the morning that they just speed up to the school to drop their kids off. That's not the way to train children to take safe routes to school", says Anders Rosbo from the Road Safety Council.

He says that it's the parents themselves that create dangerous traffic situations with the armada of cars outside schools in the morning.

"The many cars in the areas around schools cause a general insecurity among some parents who don't dare let their children walk or cycle alone to school."

One of the policemen who works towards getting schools and parents to work better together is Michael Bjørkman from the Copenhagen Police. He, too, thinks that it is the parents themselves who make the school routes unsafe.

"When I speak with parents they say that they drive their children to school because it's too dangerous to walk or cycle. But my experience is that there are many, many school routes where children from 3rd Year can walk or cycle alone. All that is required is that parents take the time to practice with their children and train them to understand what to look out for", says Michael Bjørkman.

It's not hard to see how the Road Safety Council's hardcore helmet promotion of the past year and a half has contributed to this Culture of Fear. Just two years ago you didn't experience conversations with people about how dangerous it was to cycle to school or work or anywhere.

Since intense helmet promotion was started by the Road Safety Council and Danish Cyclists' Federation there has been a paradigm shift in the way people percieve cycling. Now you have conversations at dinner parties or in workplaces about how 'dangerous' cycling is. I constantly hear from friends and collegues about conversations they've been a party to about these 'dangers'. This is not good marketing. It's quite stupid. But The Road Safety Council, and the Danish Cyclists' Federation [believe it or not] have succeeded in branding cycling in one of the safest cycling nations in the world as a 'dangerous' activity.

Despite the lack of statistics to back it up. They've shot themselves in the foot.

I've mentioned before how at a parents meeting last year when my son started in school one of the parents asked the group if anyone "dared" to let their children cycle to school. The question was bizarre for me to hear.

Fortunately, the cycle traffic to my son's school is busy and the bike parking outside the building chaotic - which is a good thing. So many children ride to school, either on their own bikes or in a cargo bike. This is typical of many Copenhagen schools but the story is quite different around the country. Still, there are parents who live within 500 metres of our school and who work within a kilometre or two of the school who still drop their kids off in cars.

There is some political talk about creating safe zones around schools. We've blogged about it before right here.

I fear that we may be well on our way to slowly dismantling our century old perception of cycling as a normal, safe and acceptable transport form. It's not just that the car-centric Road Safety Council is paving the way for a more car-centric society. We're risking losing an important part of our national identity. The part that previously considered the bicycle as an inseparable fifth limb, with all the individual and societal benefits involved.

Even Denmark needs Copenhagenizing it seems.

I often wonder if we're heading in the same direction as other countries. This kind of project in the UK may be in our future unless we start rebranding cycling as a positive thing. There are signs that it may be too late. The Danish Cyclists' Federation has run a campaign called Alle Børn Cykler - All Children Cycle - for years. School classes compete around the country to see who can cycle the most, based on a point system. This year the Cyclists' Federation's campaign was filled to the brim with ideology. Helmets were a main feature and gave extra points. So much for freedom to choose. So much for selling cycling positively and encouraging people to cycle. So much for focusing on the positive aspects of cycling. Where most cyclist federations around Europe have their own traffic consultants who keep their finger on the scientific pulse, the Danish Cyclists' Federation merely get their information from the Road Safety Council. Which explains a lot.

Maybe we're not that far from the British project mentioned above.

As a matter of interest, here's the current guidelines in Denmark for children in the traffic, if the parents have trained the kids in the traffic enough that both parties feel confident. I spent a lot of time training my son, now 7, in cycling to daycare, kindergarten and school. He was confident enough to cycle to daycare from the age of 3 and a half, with training wheels, and from about age 4 without.

3-4 years: Children can learn simple pedestrian rules but they are easily distracted and react impulsively if something catches their attention. Hold the child's hand and keep the child on the side farthest away from the traffic as possible.

4-5 years: Start bicycle training where there is no traffic. It's too early to let children walk or cycle alone. They cannot judge a dangerous situation.

5-7 years: Children can keep focus on the traffic for short periods and walk alone on quiet streets. Most can judge an obvious danger and cross streets with a good view of the traffic but intersections are still hard to tackle. Start with bike riding on streets without too much traffic if the child can cycle in a straight line and is good at braking.

6-7 years: Children can walk alone to school on safe routes. According to the law they have to be six years old to cycle alone in the traffic but it is still tricky for them to judge distance and speed so they should be accompanied by an adult when cycling to school.

8-10 years: Most children are now able to judge the traffic situation and can walk alone to school. They can also take a bus or train if the trip is simple. If the route to school is familiar and safe with light, slow traffic, they can cycle to school alone.

10-12 years: At this age most children can handle a more complicated route to school alone on a bicycle and tackle public transport that requires a change of bus or train.

12 years: Children who have had training and experience can judge the traffic almost as good as an adult and can now freely transport themselves alone. If they are inexperienced on a bicycle they need the same kind of training as small children.

Via: Politiken.