I said yesterday on Twitter that my brain was mush, and that I wouldn’t be posting until next week.
Amazing what a stimulus other people’s idiocy is, eh?
The UK Advertising Standards Agency has taken it upon themselves to enforce a law that doesn’t exist; namely that cyclists are required to wear helmets. They’ve also decided that the Highway Code guidance on road positioning is wrong, and any cyclist more than 50cm from the kerb is being “socially irresponsible”. Any adverts or safety messages which fall foul of either of these will be banned.
I’m sorry, what?!
Bit of background for you. Cycling Scotland ran a series of ads asking drivers to take more care around people on bikes. Once of which was based around the phrase “see cyclists, think horse”. Viz:
I have several criticisms about that advert, but it’s not horrendous, and certainly not as bad as most of the other Niceway Code stuff that the Scottish Government inflicted on us. It’s mildly amusing, nice and short, and plays on the fact that most people are more careful driving around horses (who can retaliate by putting a hoof through your door) than people (who crush beneath your wheels without scratching the paintwork).
The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) received five complaints questioning whether the clip was harmful “because it showed a cyclist without a helmet or any other safety attire, who was cycling down the middle of the road” (ASA’s summary).
ASA investigated and challenged Cycling Scotland. To their credit, Cycling Scotland submitted a well reasoned and comprehensive response which I won’t discredit by summarizing – as soon as this daft embargo ASA have insisted on is lifted I’ll link to it (edit: it’s here!). However, it rationally defended the choices made in making the advert, quoting a variety of UK research, publications and legislation.
ASA read the response. ASA ignored the response. ASA banned the ad from appearing again (saying it was socially irresponsible and promoted harm and offense), and confirmed that any future ads with similar ‘faults’ would also be banned. An unfortunate ASA scapegoat by the name of Matt Wilson released the press statement I’ve included at the end of this article.
Seriously ASA. What on earth?
Why should I care?
It’s a valid question. The advert wasn’t going to run any more anyway, so ASA’s ruling will have no effect in preventing people seeing it. Amusingly, it will probably work in reverse, as I know this ruling is making national news.
I’ll give three reasons why this is worthy of your attention, and I can illustrate the first two with a still from the end of the clip.
Reason 1: helmet compulsion is a bad idea
I don’t care about your personal views on cycle helmets. Seriously, I don’t. Some people adamantly argue that they are life-savers, whilst others view them as pointless plastic hats that increase your risk of spinal injury. There is no worthwhile evidence either way, as anyone who has had the misfortune to stumble into a forum thread on the topic will know.
There are some facts that are important to arguments about helmet compulsion though:
- Cycle helmets are not motorbike helmets, horse-riding helmets, or anything else comprehensively crash-tested. They are not equivalent to seatbelts or airbags. If you’re basing your opinions on anything like that; stop.
- Ignore anecdotes, stories heard at the pub, or your own “but it’s obvious” feelings. None of the research has found any evidence that people who regularly wear cycle helmets get killed or seriously injured any less often than people who don’t.
- Cycling is a low risk activity with a significant net improvement on a person’s health, even if they do so in normal clothes.
- Helmet compulsion reduces the number of people who cycle.
Australia brought in helmet compulsion, and there has been no noticeable effect on the percentage of cyclists killed and seriously injured. What did happen was fewer journeys were undertaken by bike.
Pick a country that knows a damn sight more about safe cycling than the UK. Did you pick Denmark?
Or maybe the Netherlands?
Reason 2: cycling in the gutter is a bad idea
In some ways, this is worse than the helmet stuff. At least there’s a degree of uncertainty over the effectiveness of helmets, and it’s easy (albeit embarrassing) for a government department to get themselves in a twist.
Cycle positioning in the absence of a cycle lane is utterly unambiguous though, and to try and enforce an opinion that someone riding a bike more than fifty centimetres away from the kerb is irresponsible is downright negligent. That’s a bold statement, so I’ll justify it.
The ASA concerns were specifically that the cyclist was more than 0.5m from the kerb (I think – their wording is poor to the point of contradictory) and that the overtaking car “almost had to enter the right lane of traffic”.
ASA seem attached to the Highway Code. Happily, I have a copy, and am tedious enough to know it reasonably well. The only guidance on the positioning of bikes whilst cycling on a normal road is that you should avoid swerving round potholes and position yourself well away from parked cars (rule 67). Remember the pothole I highlighted at the bottom right of the still? I’d argue our cycling heroine was sensibly positioned to avoid swerving around it. In the back of the hardcopy 2007 edition there’s also an annex charmingly entitled “You and your bicycle”, which recommends you undertake cycle training (specifically the Government-endorsed bikeability scheme). I’ve done that course and can confirm it sticks to usual primary and secondary position theories that the advert promotes. This cycle positioning shown throughout the ad is spot on, and in line with both UK official guidance and accepted European training for cycling on roads.
The second concern that the overtaking car “almost had to enter the right lane of traffic” is terrifying. Here’s an image from within the Highway Code:
Notice how the Highway Code shows that on a single-lane road the opposite lane is exactly where an overtaking car should be. There’s even a photo, which is not the case with most rules.
Did ASA not even bother to check this?
Encouraging people to cycle too close to the kerb and parked cars kills people.
Reason 3: censorship
The ASA say their aim is “to make sure that all UK advertising, wherever it appears is legal, decent, honest and truthful”. I can live with that. After all, if I were to advertise a refrigerator which you later discovered was just a cardboard box with a single ice cube in it for cooling, you need someone to turn to. I also have no problem with ensuring ads are legal, or encourage legal behaviour.
I have a massive problem when someone in the ASA decides to start ensuring ads conform to their personal beliefs.
Especially when those personal beliefs can be proved to be against the stated position within the UK, go against the advice they received when asking for guidance on the subject from experts, and directly increase the risk that every single person riding a bike is subjected to in the UK.
After all, if every time you saw a bike on the TV it was ridden inches from the kerb, ridden by someone dressed like a roadworker and with overtaking cars whizzing by in the same lane, how would you react next time you encountered someone in ‘normal clothes’ riding where the government insists they should be?
Someone in the ASA wants a nation where cyclists ride in the gutter and dress like bollards, and will ban every advert that threatens their ideal.
I want a nation where my kids can safely ride a bike as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
What can I do?
If the behaviour of the ASA bothers you, let them know. They have a page on making a complaint about the ASA here. They state that you should address correspondence to the individual involved, which is presumably the unfortunate Matt Wilson who released the statement (firstname.lastname@example.org, 020 7492 2122). They also tweet with @ASA_UK.
It’s possibly a little unfair to publish his details, but if you stick an embargo on your press releases because you’re scared of the fallout, I can’t really contact you in advance to ask for clarification. Make your bed, and all that…
Even if you don’t care about cycling, the fact that the ASA is now censoring stuff that is completely legal is surely a mild concern?
PS; Edited 2014-01-29 @12:00(ish) to add this PS, correct the links that were embargoed when I wrote this last night, and correct the spelling of kerb/curb throughout. (oops). The original ASA extract is now down below as a PPS. What fun!
I contacted Matt Wilson above early this morning asking for contact details, and received a response a few minutes back. As it answers questions I didn’t ask, I’m assuming this is a generic email that’s gone to a lot of folk; Matt’s presumably had a Bad Inbox Morning. Sadly, it makes things worse:
[The ASA are given scope] to apply the Codes, to ads, beyond what is required in law if we consider that an ad is depicting a bahaviour or activity that is potentially harmful or irresponsible
. . . There are lots of things that are not permitted to be shown in adverts that are perfectly acceptable and legal in real life – for example it is considered irresponsible to show someone buying a repeat round of drinks in an alcohol ad.
There you have it. A statement from the ASA that riding a bike in the safest road position; the position required by the Highway Code, taught in every training course I know, and a key part of the UK’s current vehicular approach to cycling, is comparable to encouraging intoxication.
I do at least have the right address now: Advertising Standards Authority, Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6QT. They don’t do email…
PPS; that ASA extract, as promised:
The ASA acknowledged that the ad was primarily encouraging motorists to take care when driving within the vicinity of cyclists.
We noted that the cyclist in the final scene was not wearing a helmet or any other safety attire, and appeared to be more than 0.5 metres from the parking lane. We also acknowledged that the cyclist was shown in broad daylight on a fairly large lane without any traffic.
We understood that UK law did not require cyclists to wear helmets or cycle at least 0.5 metres from the kerb. However, under the Highway Code it was recommended as good practice for cyclists to wear helmets. Therefore, we considered that the scene featuring the cyclist on a road without wearing a helmet undermined the recommendations set out in the Highway Code. Furthermore, we were concerned that whilst the cyclist was more than 0.5 metres from the kerb, they appeared to be located more in the centre of the lane when the car behind overtook them and the car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic. Therefore, for those reasons we concluded the ad was socially irresponsible and likely to condone or encourage behaviour prejudicial to health and safety.
The ad breached BCAP Code rules 1.2 (Social responsibility), 4.1 and 4.4 (Harm
The ad must not be broadcast again in its current form. We told Cycling Scotland that any future ads featuring cyclists should be shown wearing helmets and placed in the most suitable cycling position.