The Whisperers

April 20, 2010 at 15:47 | Posted in bicycles | 8 Comments
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There is something very wrong in the world of bicycling. A significant and well-funded force is afoot, and is actively discouraging cycling. They are everywhere; their influence extends widely and their message is insidious and relentless.

There are many great efforts undertaken to encourage cycling. The benefits of doing so are well known; environmental, health, congestion, road safety, public expenditure savings. And there are some great initiatives; encouraging people to ride to work or school, large social rides, programmes to encourage women onto bikes, skills training, commuter tips, bike buses and the like. However, all of these activities are having to work harder than necessary, and are less effective than they should be, because they are having to overcome those that would discourage cycling.

It’s like trying to tell people something, whilst all the time someone else is whispering in their ear with the opposite message. These Whisperers are always there, constantly undermining the positive messages about cycling. Often the Whisperers manage to get their message incorporated into positive advocacy messages, undermining the effect and sabotaging efforts to get more people riding.

So who are these Whisperers? And what is their message?

The message is very simple, and could have been carefully calculated to discourage everyday participation in cycling. It is this: ‘Riding a bike is very dangerous’. This is what is being whispered into the ears of your audience as you try to tell them of the pleasures and benefits of cycling. You talk about the convenience, how fit you have become, of the fun you have – but all the time the voice is there in the ear of your listener ‘… but it’s so dangerous. You’d be killed if you got on a bike…‘.

To overcome the Whisperers, you have to speak louder. And longer. Often to no avail; your audience can appreciate what you are saying, but think the risks you are taking simply don’t warrant the benefits. ‘It’s so risky! You take your life in your hands cycling on those streets‘, say the Whisperers, and their message is so insidious, so subliminal, so constant, and so often reinforced that no amount of positive advocacy or promotion can overcome it. ‘People get killed on bikes all the time‘ remind the Whisperers. ‘It’s not safe‘.

All cyclists know of this effect. Of riding to work day in day out for years on end – and as you prepare to ride home yet again people who have watched you for years say, ‘oooh, it must be dangerous – take care!’, or ‘You are so brave riding to work!’. Surveys show it rates as one of the major reasons why people don’t ride. People don’t ride bikes because they are scared of being killed.

So where are the Whisperers? How do they get their message out there so successfully – more successfully, it seems, than any positive messages about the benefit of cycling?

The Whisperers can be found in government. ‘Cyclists get killed all the time!’ whispers the Victorian government. ‘Cyclists have lots of crashes and get head injuries! whispers the NSW government. ‘Ride a bike and you’ll be hit by a car!’ whispers the UK government.

The Whisperers can be found in the media. “Cyclists are getting killed all the time!’ whispers the SMH, as does Channel 9. “Look how many deaths there are!‘ whispers the ABC.

The Whisperers are there in charity and not-for-profit organisations; ‘Bicycles are dangerous!’ whisper Kidsafe.

The Whisperers even get into cycling advocacy materials. ‘Lots of cyclists get hit by cars at night!’ whispers Bicycle Victoria.

Then, of course, there is the sheer volume of helmet promotion. It’s hard to find anything about cycling that doesn’t, as pretty much the first thing, insist on the wearing of helmets. ‘Cycling is so dangerous you need special protective equipment‘ murmur the Whisperers. ‘Look how much more dangerous it must be than other activities!

Maybe you don’t see the Whisperers in all of these. Or in any of these. Maybe you see well meaning advice. Well meaning it may be, but just pause and think for a moment – why does almost every promotion or communication about bicycles contain lurid descriptions of bicycle crashes, and references to cyclists being killed? This is the truly insidious nature of the Whisperers – to a non cyclist, the message is constant and reinforced. “Staying safe on a bike is hard – unless you are very careful, you’ll be killed‘. This is the message that most people hear when looking at these materials. Whisper, whisper. Other messages come and go, but this one just stays constant and unchanging. If it’s about bicycles, the Whisperers will be there, making sure their message is the one that will be remembered.

You might read the above, and dismiss it as poppycock. That I am over-sensitive; seeing things that aren’t there. Perhaps. However, next time you read or watch anything referring to cyclists, look out for the Whisperers. They might be hard to spot; if you are a cyclist you will be relatively immune to their voices. But put yourself in the shoes of a non-cyclist; one who already thinks cycling is dangerous (which most do), and look again. You might find they are whispering louder than you think.

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8 Comments »

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  1. Oh dear. It seems from comments posted elsewhere that this blog post is in danger of being misconstrued. It just goes to show that internet blogs, written communication and attempts at light satire are a dangerous mix in the hands of amateurs.

    Anyway, just to be clear, I don’t think there is some sort of mysterious, secret campaign aimed at discouraging cycling through a concerted effort to paint cycling as dangerous. There is certainly no conspiracy.

    Rather there are a number of different factors that come together that mean, intentional or not, cycling seems to get associated with ‘danger’ and ‘deaths’ much more often than other, comparable activities.

    Much of this is well-meaning; people and organisations are genuinely attempting to make cycling safer and incidentally refer to some of the grimmer cycling statistics to reinforce their positive messages. News outlets aren’t looking out for bad news cycling stories; it just happens that a cycling death is more newsworthy than a motorist death, probably because they are rarer. And so on.

    However, what this blog was attempting to highlight was the effect on the audience of non-cyclists. There’s a truism in marketing that the thing you say most often is the thing people will remember, and also believe to be true. The more often you say something, the more true it becomes, and the more people remember it.

    Many messages about cycling seem to be combined with some element that talks about the danger of cycling. They are not the main message of any one communication (in fact they are normally very incidental), nor is there any coordination in their appearance. However, because they are there so often, they become the main message simply by weight of repetition.

    Or I may be over-sensitive. Perhaps. However, I know I have been guilty of being a whisperer sometimes; I mention something about a cycling accident or mention a car that pulled out in front of me, and I see the listener recoil at how dangerous it all sounds; sometimes they even tell me I should ‘stop riding before I get killed’. Maybe I’m just reinforcing a prejudice they already have, and perhaps that prejudice has nothing to do with ‘whisperers’. But I wonder; I just wonder where this ‘cycling is dangerous’ meme came from, and why it seems to hard to shift in people’s minds.

  2. In my opinion the road safety industry is such a conspiracy. I don’t kno0w about Oz but here in the UK their message is that the vulnerable road users, e.g. cyclists and pedestrians must modify their behaviour in the vicinity of motor vehicle. The idea that we might make cars go slowly and restrict their movements to locations away from vulnerable users, that our roads, pending the development of separate infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, are shared spaces, is entirely lost on them.

    So no conspiracy, just an industry!

  3. While I agree that governments and bicycle equipment manufacturers are the most obvious bearers of the “promote-cycling-but-call-it-dangerous” message, there is also an element of the cycling community that thrives on cycling in urban areas as a “dangerous” activity – they ride fast, ignore even basic traffic flow rules, your basic thrill seeker. Infrastructure improvements and an increae of cycling-as-transportation types will only get in their way. It’s something I’ve been thinking about when I attend bike advocacy events, ect. Perhaps its because I’m a recent convert to a Dutch bike that has caused me to notice the variations in the cycling community.

  4. I suspect that the “Whisperers” sometimes don’t know they’re whispering because so many people translate statements through a filter of perceived risk.
    I was thrilled when NPR had a morning blurb about bic9ycling to work in which SAFETY was not a theme… the “and we often go out at lunch for extra!” took higher precedence. I’m pretty sure the word helmet was NEVER EVEN MENTIONED.
    When people talk about skiing, they don’t focus on risk avoidance, do they?

  5. I love this article. I too hear the whispers all the time though usually they do not whisper. It is amazing the number of people that feel free to comment about my choice to not wear a helmet.

    I love your comment that you are sometime guilty of being a whisper yourself. I have this concern about telling stories of my own experiences. After 4 years of regular commuting on a bike I finally witnessed a distracted driver that truly endangered me. I saw him in time, moved out of his way as he drove staring at his phone, and nothing happened. Is telling this story a good thing to promote awareness about the dangers of distracted driving or is it a story of why not to cycle?

    In balance I drive my car regularly as well and have witnessed some bad driving that placed me and my family at risk despite being in the “safety” of the metal box. I hope those who see my cycling story as cause to get off the bike would as easily see the car stories as cause to get out of the car.

    Philip

  6. [...] a writer for HuffPo says bikes are the future of transportation. That is, if the Whisperers don’t stop it. And speaking of Ross, he offers his take on the Great Helmet Debate and the “They Can’t [...]

  7. What makes you think the car companies are NOT involved in a deliberate attempt to suffocate other forms of transport?

    It’s happened before…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_streetcar_scandal


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