A camera cyclist who deleted his Twitter and YouTube accounts after being targeted with sustained abuse on social media – including multiple threats of violence – says that he won’t stop reporting instances of dangerous driving or motorists using their phone behind the wheel, because “reducing the amount of carnage on our roads is too important a cause to walk away from”.
Speaking to road.cc, Edinburgh-based cyclist Deacon Thurston argued that the “societal acceptance” of anti-cycling attitudes – strikingly evident in the recent campaign against him, which saw one Twitter user invite others to join him on a "hit-and-run” – is a key barrier to coaxing people out of their cars and towards more sustainable modes of transport.
The camera cyclist also criticised the bureaucratic, time-consuming process of reporting dangerous driving to Police Scotland, which he described as “a mess”, with “outcomes far too dependent on the individual officers who happen to be on duty that day”.
“It’s a mess: very few prosecutable offences get reported”
Thurston began regularly reporting and posting videos of law-breaking drivers on Twitter and YouTube just over a year ago, after being involved in an altercation with a motorist that the police couldn’t pursue due to a lack of evidence and witnesses.
“Two days later I became GoPro’s newest customer and I’ve recorded every ride since,” he tells road.cc.
“I report as much of the bad and dangerous driving to the police as I can possibly manage, the rest has tended to find its way onto Twitter and YouTube to raise awareness of just how widespread this behaviour is.”
However, Thurston’s increasingly high-profile online presence was brought to an abrupt end in January, when he was hounded off his social media accounts after a co-ordinated attack by users unhappy at the rider for reporting motorists illegally using handheld phones behind the wheel.
The harassment campaign, described by one of the attackers as a “victory for decent people”, took place after Thurston tweeted that he had filmed 12 phone-using drivers in the space of an hour while cycling in Edinburgh.
For one of those distracted drivers, it wasn’t even the first time that Thurston had spotted him on his phone – and at the exact same location where his latest footage had been captured, too.
However, the prolific camera cyclist neglected to report the clips to Police Scotland due to the time it would have taken to submit the dozen separate videos.
Police Scotland last year announced funding for a new dedicated National Dashcam Safety Portal, would have made it easier for people to upload footage of law-breaking drivers, but the yet to be rolled-out scheme has since been under review and could be axed, prompting a campaign from Cycling UK to save it.
> Cyclist catches 12 drivers using phones behind the wheel in an hour
Instead, submissions from Scotland currently go through the time-consuming Police Scotland Online Reporting Form which, as Thurston notes, isn’t the easiest system to navigate.
“What my experiences of the last year have consistently shown is that Police Scotland are simply not capable of accepting and acting on third-party video reports as effectively as most other UK police forces,” he says.
“I can provide the clearest possible footage of a motorist using their phone while driving — irrefutable evidence of a device being used, registration plate clearly visible, driver easily identifiable.
“But, when you add up the time spent queuing to get through to 101, explaining to the call handler what’s happened, speaking to the officer who phones you back, having two officers come to your home to view the footage and take a statement — it can easily exceed two hours of my time per incident.
“It’s not unusual for me to record four or five drivers on a short commute to work and back, so you can quickly see the problem.”
> Here's what to do if you capture a near miss, close pass or collision on camera while cycling
As well as the time-consuming nature of the reporting process, he says his experience of dealing with Police Scotland – and the force’s approach to dangerous driving – over the past year has been “mixed”.
“Outcomes are far too dependent on the individual officers who happen to be on duty that day,” he explains. “Most have been fantastic, but some have failed to display even a rudimentary understanding of road traffic laws or the Highway Code.
“A very small number have been downright dismissive, resulting in upheld complaints, apologies issued, and assurances that retraining would take place.”
As well as the potential for dismissive responses, Thurston also noted that the painfully bureaucratic nature of reporting offences in Scotland extends to the varied handling of clips by the police.
“The officers who take the statement have to be local to my home address but, more often than not, the offence itself will have taken place in another station’s jurisdiction, meaning everything has to then be handed over to new set of officers to follow up with the vehicle’s owner, who could be in a completely different place again,” he says.
“I always offer footage on a flash drive (at my own expense — that’s a few quid per report I’ll never get back) but officers rarely know what to do with it.
“Some ask you to fill out forms designed for business owners with CCTV installations, some ask you to email screen grabs, others are happy to view an unlisted YouTube link. Sometimes they say someone else will come and collect the footage and never show up.
“In short, it’s a mess: very few prosecutable offences get reported, and too many of those that are reported don’t result in prosecutions.”
The cyclist tells us that the system would be “massively improved” if Scotland, like several other forces across the UK, adopted online third-party reporting for traffic offences, and says that – thanks to the archaic, time-consuming process currently in place – fewer than ten percent of the “well over a hundred prosecutable offences” he filmed in 2022 were actually reported.
“If you want people to change their behaviour, sometimes you have to hold up a mirror”
While the dozen phone-using drivers, all captured by Thurston’s camera in one day last month, escaped any sort of punishment, the cyclist’s decision to tweet about this widespread law-breaking proved the catalyst for the most unsavoury of online pile-ons, as a seemingly endless number of Twitter users aimed a range of extreme insults at the cyclist, along with multiple threats of violence.
It wasn’t the first time that Thurston, a regular fixture on local news sites thanks to his steady stream of footage, had borne the brunt of the typically aggressive interpretation of what passes for debate and discussion on Twitter.
But the co-ordinated and violent nature of the abuse – which ranged from users labelling Thurston a “grass” to calls for an organised “hit-and-run” campaign against him, and made all the more real and threatening after one user shared a photo of the cyclist – ultimately prompted Thurston to shut down his accounts, temporarily at least.
“Anyone who posts publicly on social media will find themselves the target of abuse sooner or later, and the whole cyclist-vs-drivers thing is such a divisive topic that I received my fair share from the get-go,” he tells road.cc.
“It was expected and I was okay with it. And, frankly, if your first retort is a stupid playground insult like ‘grass’, you’ve already lost the argument.
“I’m aware my videos are provocative, but they have been deliberately so. If you want people to change their behaviour, sometimes you have to hold up a mirror, and that’s always going to attract a certain amount of pushback.
“A driver who frequently uses their phone behind the wheel will understandably feel attacked by someone posting videos critical of people doing the same.
“But behind every negative or abusive reaction I’m sure exists a much larger but less vocal group, some of whom might think twice the next time they’re tempted to check Instagram or open WhatsApp while driving. Believing that makes the abuse easy enough to swallow.”
However, he says that the attacks “took a much nastier turn” after he posted clips of motorists using their phones while driving liveried vans in Edinburgh, and tagged their employers in the tweets.
“I’ve uploaded plenty of similar things in the past but for some reason both the views and vilification really took off on these two. Within three days one of the tweets had been seen almost a million times, and one of the videos clocked up more than 300,000 views,” he says.
“To many viewing these tweets I was the bad guy, trying to get ‘decent people sacked from their jobs for no reason – and in the middle of a cost of living crisis too’.
“I see things a bit differently. One of the drivers I filmed was playing a game on his phone, the other was watching a video; both were on busy city-centre streets, in a company-branded vehicle, surrounded by other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists — exactly the sort of environment where any careful and considerate driver would want to keep their attention firmly on their surroundings.
“Whether or not I was there to film it and whether or not their employers would censure them for such behaviour, why on earth would you gamble your driving licence, livelihood and the safety of the people around you on a quick game of Candy Crush? Why would I not call out such a blatant disregard for everything?”
> Victory claimed for harassment campaign by “mob of decent people” as helmet cam cyclist deletes Youtube and Twitter accounts
While accustomed by now to the “furore” that can greet his videos, Thurston admits that he “chose to pull the plug” after a grainy image of a man “they figured was probably me at some cycling event” was shared “alongside a string of pretty nasty and direct threats of violence, and even more incitement to others to cause me harm”.
He continues: “I don’t particularly care if people know what I look like – I’ve never concealed my identity from any of the drivers I film – but these threats were real enough that I chose to pull the plug.”
As the subject of a targeted and vitriolic campaign, Thurston argues that Twitter is “wholly ineffective” when it comes to dealing with claims of abuse and harassment. While he and others reported the “worst tweets” to the app’s moderators, Twitter simply replied, after days, that the abuse “hasn’t broken our safety policies”.
“When you’re the subject of a pile-on like that the choice is stark: either suck it up or leave,” he says. “It’s the wild west out there, and you’re on your own.”
“I’m still cycling… I’m not giving up anytime soon”
But where does the violent nature of the abuse thrown at Thurston, and other prominent camera cyclists such as Mike van Erp (more commonly known as Cycling Mikey) come from, and why is it so widespread?
Thurston reckons that the vicious invective found on social media stems from an acceptance, within certain sections of society, of the potentially dangerous behaviour of drivers, as well as a virulent anti-cycling stance which shows up, not only in the comments under a Twitter thread, but in the pages of the national press.
“It was remarkable how many of those throwing these threats and abuse around seemed comfortable doing so in a public forum alongside pictures of them and their children, details of the companies they work for, or the businesses they own,” he points out.
“One particularly stuck in my mind was a post inviting others to join him on a ‘hit and run’ on me, which appeared immediately after a string of posts about men’s mental health, and the importance of men caring for one another.
“Sadly, such is the societal acceptance of a set of behaviour that kills and maims thousands in the UK, and makes so many people too scared to navigate our roads and streets in anything but a heavy metal box of their own.
“If we’re to stand any chance of coaxing people out of their cars and into more healthy and sustainable forms of transport we’re going to have to tackle these attitudes in pretty short shrift.”
> “People need to see justice being done”: CyclingMikey says camera cyclists suffer online abuse because some motorists “feel they have the right to drive how they want”
However, despite his evident frustration at his treatment on social media, Thurston is adamant that the experience won’t prevent him from reporting dangerous drivers to the police – and that he may one day make a comeback to Twitter.
“I’m still cycling, still wearing the GoPro, and have reported several drivers to the police since closing my Twitter account. I’m not giving up anytime soon,” he insists.
“I would hate anyone to count on me staying away from social media.
“Reducing the amount of carnage on our roads, and making our cities more pleasant for the vast majority who just want to enjoy getting around safely, is too important a cause to walk away from.
“And I seem to have caught the attention of the right people now…”
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