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Cyclists filtering under fire in local press - although it's not illegal

Stories from Trinity Mirror's Data Journalism Unit talk of 'undertaking' but don't seem to understand how traffic collision stats work...

Four remarkably similar stories have appeared in local newspapers across England in recent days warning about the number of cyclists injured in specific cities while ‘undertaking’ – even though the practice, also called ‘filtering,’ is not illegal, and official police reports after road traffic incidents do not list it as a potential contributory factor.

The story first appeared on the website of the newspaper  Cambridge News last Friday, with the headline Revealed: Hotspots in Cambridge for accidents where cyclists undertake other vehicles.

The story also named two junctions in the city where there had been more than one such incident in recent years.

Versions tailored to three other cities appeared yesterday on the websites of the Birmingham Mail, Manchester Evening News and, today, the Bristol Post.

All three of those titles  are owned by Trinity Mirror, as is Cambridge News, which confirmed to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign on Friday that its story had come from the Trinity Mirror’s Data Journalism Unit.

Its story, and those of its three sister publications, included a reference to “filtering” which was described as potentially being “a dangerous tactic – drivers may not always check their left-wing mirrors before moving off.”

Filtering is, however, perfectly legal, and the Highway Code specifically says that people should “be aware of other road users, especially cycles and motorcycles who may be filtering through the traffic,” as well as emphasising the importance of using mirrors.

The stories were based on data from the STATS19 form used by police forces to gather information about road traffic collisions which is then used to produce statistics such as the Department for Transport’s annual reports into road traffic casualties in Great Britain.

The form allows a standardised approach to what information is gathered in relation to road traffic casualties, and includes a list of 18 manoeuvres that one or more of the vehicles involved in a collision may have been making. One of those is “overtaking on the inside.”

That could also apply not just to filtering but also to a situation where a cyclist might be riding on a cycle lane with a queue of stationary traffic to his or her left.

It’s important to note that the information captured is intended as a factual record of the event and does not seek to apportion blame. There is a separate form, headed “contributory factors.”

That form allows an investigating officer to choose up to six factors that may have led to the collision – but none of the ones listed specifically mention overtaking on the inside.

So, while the data used as the basis for the four Trinity Mirror stories records that the rider was performing such a manoeuvre, there’s no evidence whatsoever that it was the cause of the incident; indeed, a driver failing to look often designated as a contributory factor in an incident in which a cyclist is injured.

Also, while each story mentions specific locations where there have been multiple incidents, they didn’t seek to explore factors such as road layout that might have explained that.

Nowadays, with so much data about on issues such as crime or health it makes sense for a publisher such as Trinity Mirror to look at running stories that can be written centrally then tweaked for each newspaper’s home market.

But with stories about cyclists being a staple of local newspapers – just look at the comments on each of those stories to see the passions that can be inflamed on both sides – it’s important to get the details right to avoid misleading and inaccurate stereotypes.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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