Watch and Hang Back before UNTHINKING

Does the DfT believe that if it is the fault of another, the victim's behaviour must be changed? Flickr CC: Duncan C
We asked THINK to stop digging a hole with their 'Hang Back' campaign. They're still holding the shovels, as the Minister explains that the film is not about blaming victims ...

'Hanging Back' to watch the debate

Ten days ago, Cycling UK reported that we had written to the Minister Andrew Jones MP regarding the latest THINK cycle safety campaign asking for this campaign, or at least the 'Hang Back' video, to be withdrawn.

Although THINK officials had suggested they were not for turning, we still waited for a Ministerial response, and asked members and supporters to email the Minister and let him know their thoughts and concerns about the THINK campaign, while supporting our call for Hang Back to be guillotined. 

Over 1,100 people wrote in to the Minister in agreement with our position, and two days ago we heard back from Andrew Jones. The abbreviated message is that the Government are "watching the debate closely and monitoring the performance of the THINK cycle safety campaign", but that it is "too soon to assess the impact of a campaign which is scheduled to run until the end of October."

The message that missed

One of Cycling UK's criticisms of the 'Hang Back' video is that it attempts to convey the message to cyclists not to undertake a left-turning lorry, but actually shows a lorry overtaking a cyclist before turning left, rather than waiting behind the cyclist before doing so. The inference is that blame belongs to the victim, who should have hung back and avoided one of those things they "shouldn't get caught between": a lorry and a kerb.

The Minister denied that the film is about blaming victims, and explained that it is important that cyclists "are aware that HGV drivers and motorists might make an error that could cause serious injury or death." 

In summary, we are told that THINK's message in the film is supposed to be that cyclists might have to deal with a driver behaving in the manner depicted, and not that the driving shown is appropriate, hence the 'Hang Back' advice.

If that was THINK's intention, then the video is, to quote Chris Boardman, "woefully misguided". Looking for positives, we are relieved that the Minister appears to accept that this film is not an example of safe driving where the cyclist is the author of their own misfortune. An inept campaign is less horrific than the Department for Transport seeking to argue that the driver in the 'Hang Back' video was not at fault.

DOUBLETHINK and the wrecking ball

The justification for THINK warning cyclists to 'Hang Back' because a lorry driver might make a mistake, through a video and campaign strap line which seeks behaviour change from only one party, the victim, is made slightly easier if you revert to DOUBLETHINK and George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.

THINK tell themselves: "It is the lorry driver's fault, therefore I must make sure the cyclist changes his behaviour". Here we have Doublethink, the power to hold two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accept both of them. A fictional 'Newspeak' word to eliminate individual thought and ensure the departmental line is followed. Perhaps THINK should listen to those outside their department next time, which might help them UNTHINK the contradiction.

The Minister's response suggests that, after the campaign has run its course, they will review the results, identify what has worked, and engage with Cycling UK on future campaigns. We think it's clear THINK hasn't worked, but it looks like the party line will hold for the rest of the month, so there's no escape from cartoon characters and wrecking balls just yet. 

We're not saying undertake regardless!

Having heavily criticised THINK in recent weeks regarding this campaign, it is perhaps fair to concede that short, snappy, strap-line campaign and awareness messages on this issue can miss the target, not least because infrastructure, lorry design, driver behaviour and cyclists' behaviour all have an impact.

The complexity is evident by some responses received from cyclists regarding our opposition to the 'Hang Back' video, questioning whether we supported cyclists undertaking lorries and 'sneaking up' their inside as they were about to turn left.

Just to be clear, Cycling UK has always supported the 'Be Aware' message to cyclists when approaching the rear of a lorry. We do not advocate cyclists undertaking left-turning lorries. We agree with the idea behind the THINK campaign, that cyclists should be aware of the danger zones caused by lorry blind spots.

We tried, however, to explain to THINK that cyclists can find themselves on the inside of a lorry because they have just been overtaken by a lorry, which then suddenly slows down before it has fully passed them; that the cyclist might be in a bus lane in a line of free flowing traffic, whilst that on their outside lane, including lorries, is stationary; and that when caught between and on the inside of two lorries at a set of traffic lights, that it might be safer to assess the situation and move in front of the first lorry into the advance stop area at the lights.

Doubleplusgood not ungood

The DfT said "no", it was a simple message, cyclists should just 'Hang Back'. We thought that was overly simplistic, and led to a Government awareness campaign which missed the target and implicitly blamed the victim.

We are not saying that cyclists should suddenly start charging up the inside of lorries, ignoring the fact that the driver might be blind to their presence. We just know THINK could have presented this campaign so much better, had they thought and listened. It might just then have been, in 1984 Newspeak terms, a campaign which rather than being 'ungood', was 'doubleplusgood'.