The draft Road Collision Reporting Guidelines, published on Monday, were mischaracterised by some parts of the media as calling for the term Lycra Lout to be made a hate crime. This is not the intention of the guidelines, nor is it written anywhere in the draft guidelines.
The Guidelines are intended to form an industry standard for media reporting and commenting on road collisions, and to help publishers avoid language we know from research directly influences how safe people are on the roads. Although that risk applies particularly to cyclists, a vulnerable road user and arguably disproportionately characterised in dehumanising terms, it applies to all road users. How our media reports on collisions themselves, injuries and deaths on the roads plays into how we view road danger, its source and its human impact as a society, and how we deal with it in our legal system. The Mail’s characterisation of the draft guidelines as a ‘gag’ on free speech, an attempt to ban a specific term, or to change the law or the definition of hate crime, is incorrect and misleading and an interpretation that is barely recognisable from the documents which we shared publicly in draft form in an open and transparent manner for consultation.
In order to meet our aims we sought input from national roads policing, media, academic, legal and road safety experts among others, as well as reviewing the evidence around road danger and the effects of such reporting.
The ‘hate crime’ story first ran in the Daily Mail on Wednesday 30 September and then syndicated that day on MSN, then followed by the Times, written by one of its trainee graduate reporters and published on Thursday 1 October. Neither of these outlets got in touch with the Active Travel Academy.
Following our complaint to the Mail it has defended its characterisation of the piece with some linguistic gymnastics that to our mind fall flat on their face. Our recommendation was journalists don’t use language that dehumanises, or that may incite hatred or violence against a road user, such as Lycra lout, or zombie pedestrian, and that we suggest a representative or individual could bring about a complaint - within the constraints of an industry standard - for language which is ‘intended to, or is likely to, provoke hatred’. This, they say, they interpreted as meaning we want Lycra lout made a hate crime, i.e a change in law or definition, and that a cyclist being insulted would be enough to trigger such a complaint. Our wording clearly states the "disputed words... must be more than provocative, offensive, hurtful or objectionable", but at a level likely to provoke hatred to meet that standard – which is very far from an insult.
While we are distracted by the mischaracterisation of these draft guidelines we take away from the crucial work of ensuring road death and road crime are reported and discussed in ways that reflect the seriousness of the issue and the devastation caused to victims of road collisions and their families.
Above all we should remember these draft guidelines apply to collisions involving every kind of road user. At their core they are about setting a professional standard for those reporting on road collisions, whoever is involved.
We understand certain topics with certain spins generate a lot of interest, therefore clicks and revenue for whoever publishes them, and cycling is one of them. We also know changing attitudes takes time, and too often we don’t see as a society the harm and devastation dangerous behaviour on the roads causes – our language implies it’s simply cars, running out of control by accident, and the rest is collateral damage; in other words, it’s just the price we pay for having roads.
This mischaracterisation of the draft guidelines, and attempts to defend them, only justify to our minds why these guidelines are needed.
Those with experience of the topics, and the impact language has on road safety, are supportive of this project and understand we want the guidelines to be as good as they can be. We welcome constructive feedback on our draft consultation, wherever it comes from.