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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