Thursday, 22 November 2012

Victim Blaming

What is victim blaming? It's a not very nice phenomenon in the world in which we live, and broadly takes the form of referring to the victim of criminal behaviour with the thoughtful and considerate words"they had it coming". It has been detrimental to criminalisation of minority groups the world over, women, black people, latinos, and depends crucially on the out-group status of those minorities - because they are not part of the norm in society, they are responsible for their own misfortunes. Put in this way, it is clear that victim blaming is a pretty disgusting, pretty cowardly way of dealing with social problems. I'm a man, white and i guess middle class, so beyond my bleeding heart liberalism, why does this bother me on such a personal level? One simple reason, i ride a bike to work.

Now to be clear, i'm not out to compare rape to being cut up by a taxi on Tottenham Court Road, but let's not forget that the number of cyclist deaths in London has now hit 13, and has only dipped below double figures once between 1992 and the present day (in 2004, eight people died on the roads of the capital). If being crushed beneath the wheels of a lorry is not a life-changing experience, i don't know what is. So what's got me all hot and bothered about this?

Well, it comes down to a concerted campaign by TFL, aimed squarely at cyclists. I am sure that TFL do have their hearts in the right place, and that they are trying in the most effective way available to them to reduce cyclist deaths, but their campaign just looks like a massive, publicly-funded exercise in victim-blaming.

Take these stickers:

Or this video that has been going viral on my facebook, reposted by smart cycling friends of mine who have unfortunately bought into the "i am the problem" mentality.

I'm afraid that, based on my own personal experience, the drivers of lorries bearing the TFL stickers seem to be the worst offenders, often not bothering to indicate at junctions, or worse choosing to drive at speeds totally inappropriate to the clogged conditions of central London's roads. It's almost as if they view the stickers as a catch-all excuse - a pre-emptive "sorry i didn't see you mate" in case they should carelessly wander across a junction and squeeze some poor unsuspecting cyclist into the railings. "It doesn't matter that i forgot to indicate your honour, because you see, i got a sticker on the back of my lorry".

The film is even more worrying, not for what it shows, but for what it doesn't show. How exactly did a lorry that was turning left end up straddling two lanes alongside a group of cyclists waiting at a stop line? The reality, again from my own experience, would be that the lorry driver, rather than choosing to wait in the left hand lane to turn left, would have decided to go in the right hand lane, alongside the cyclists whilst they were already stopped at red. He would have then indicated, once already stopped, and used the natural selection "i'm bigger than you, get out of my way" approach to make sure he got a clear run at his turn. If any poor cyclist failed to notice what was going on, well, they're a lot smaller than him, so does it really matter? After all, everyone knows thanks to the concerted efforts of TFL and other road safety organisations that the way cyclists get killed is by going up the inside of good, law abiding, always indicating, never speeding lorries. So really, they only had themselves to blame.

Herein lies the problem with this well-meant, and well-run campaign. It gives people who should know better an out, an excuse. You wouldn't dream of standing in front of a judge and saying "he was annoying me, so i decided to swing my chainsaw at him, and then he died" and not at least be charged with murder, but do the same with a truck (or any other vehicle for that matter), and okay, that's fine, 6 points and a £150 fine will do.

If you look at the TFL website there is good and sensible advice for both cyclists and drivers of HGVs. Unfortunately, the reality is that HGV drivers are professionals - they do it for a living, whereas very few cyclists, even including the couriers, are cycling for a living - they cycle as a means of commuting to and from work, or to get to the shops. The practical reality is therefore that cyclists are disproportionately more likely to go to the website for advice, whereas professional HGV drivers will either assume that they will have covered everything they need to know in their training (if they're new to the job) or that their many years of experience on the roads is better preparation than any crappy website!

The question we should all ask straight away when we watch that TFL video is "How the hell do we think it's a good idea to have such poorly-equipped vehicles on the roads at all? Who allowed this?!"Until that is the reaction of every person, cyclist, driver, pedestrian, whatever, then the victim-blaming will continue, and cyclists will be viewed as second class citizens...

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