Wednesday, November 13, 2013

We all like a story

Stories play an important part in our lives.  Before the printed word they were important not just for entertainment, but education, cultural and knowledge preservation, control and societal cohesion. You only have to look at young children at play and watch them in a play re-enactment from to see how important a part it plays in our lives.

Such is the power of the story that it is used by Politicians when they are selling us there political approach. The trouble is stories are about people rather than facts. Good stories sway the emotions rather than the intellect.

The trouble is the heart doesn’t always lead to the best decisions, which is why there is conflict between evidence-based policy and the use of anecdotes when making what can be critical decisions.  One example of that, where that difference impacts our health is in the Pharmaceutical Industry – as described by Ben Goldacre.  It can be further complicated by the imperfect use of statistics. When, what is a powerful tool in the Scientists’ armoury (Stats) gets fiddled which it can lead to a general cynicism about any science – look at how the seriousness of Climate Change can be so easily dismissed by some.

Which leads me to my concerns about the role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). We seem to have moved back to an old-school political accountability system of overseeing our Police Forces. A system that is even worrying our MPs and even one PCC is suggesting that they are a “£100m waste of money”. There are also claims of expenses claimed by two PCCs and a third with a chauffeur and just for good measure cronyism.

With with the low turnout for voting it wasn’t an auspicious start for PCCs, perhaps we, the electorate got what we deserved. Here in the Flatlands around Cambridge  our PCC who seems to have a bee in his bonnet about cyclists or maybe an eye ear for a good soundbite?

Police dish out £1,500 in fines in an hour to cyclists without lights in Cambridge as commissioner Sir Graham Bright joins crackdown (as scores more law-breakers sped past). And the sound-bright from our PCC :

“It is just unbelievable how many cyclists are without lights. It is terrible for drivers who just can’t see them in the dark and the cyclists are simply endangering themselves and other road users.

“We could have had many more officers out tonight and they would have all been busy stopping cyclists without lights. It is like shooting fish in a barrel.”

IMHO, some rather emotive language – “shooting fish in a barrel” – well as I have first-hand experience of being knocked of my car in broad day light I can tell you that it sometimes feels as if I am that fish when cycling. That was not the most helpful of phrases. The first part of the quote “unbelievable how many cyclists” and “it is terrible for drivers”. 

This seems to me to be old-school political rhetoric designed to appeal to the heart and not the head. It sympathises with the drivers for the terrible thing cyclists are doing to them. No mention of what is so terrible for drivers though.  Perhaps it might be terrible for drivers caught without lights in an area where all the streetlights didn’t work – but terrible – no.  I suppose the feeling is why bother with facts when the electorate don’t really respond to such things anyway.  If you are interested in facts then the Cottenham Cyclist has looked at Oxford and assessed the data regarding accidents during daylight and darkness. Perhaps it might surprise you that the conclusion is the cyclists in Oxford are proportionately safer at night.

The positive aspect of the exercise (apart from the fact it was cheap – three volunteer police constables and Sir Graham he was there – just not my idea of cheap) was the use of the LIT approach – lights instead of tickets.

To be honest, from observing the work of PCCs I am not totally sure what they are really supposed to do – but another example of our PCC’s pronouncements – “Make cycle helmets compulsory” says police chief Sir Graham Bright – but Cambridge MP Julian Huppert disagrees. In this article the PCC tells us a story of his Doctor son’s experience of consequences of head injuries and tells us that “the damage that can be done if a cyclist hits their head on a kerb can be terrible”. Which is true – but the same could be said of pedestrians:

“the damage that can be done if a cyclist hits their head on a kerb can be terrible”.

It is no less true. Co-incidentally a “pedestrian hurt in hit-and-and-run crash at Cambridge crossing”, fortunately only minor facial injuries – but why doesn’t the PCC offer the same advice about helmets to pedestrians?. In this instance it is a good thing that they have gotten a more balanced view.  Although the cynic in me suspects that is more of a press-device to report a conflicting point of view rather than get to the truth. Interestingly the same story was reported by and avoided being quite so anti-cyclist. also devotes more space and facts to the issue.

Two other examples of how news reports tend to use a “story” which, I reckon clouds the facts. “Angry pensioner tips bag of dog poo over Cambridge University lecturer for ‘cycling too close to he’ by guided busway”.  Perhaps it is me being too sensitive, however the article does seem to give way to much airtime to the miscreant’s side of the story and the (unproven) danger presented by cyclists. Whereas the guilty party has two previous cautions for common assault and criminal damage and frankly what she did was disgusting.

The second story – “Man fined for assaulting cyclist said he was trying to save his life” also seems to focus on the guilty party and the victims get no say.  Perhaps that also mirrors the way the courts work.

It seems to me that we cyclists must get better at telling our story. If we want to stop being the out group – no more lycra louts – but parents, children on their way to school, or to work. We have to stop being painted as such one-dimensional characters.

Update – I hadn’t read A Tale of Two (or Three, or Four) Assaults. As reported by Cambridge News – the Cambridge Cyclist breaks down the coverage of mitigation versus coverage of the illegality.

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