Panorama – Road Rage: Cars v Bikes is a curious title for a TV programme that if anything showed just how vulnerable people riding bikes are with motorists who overtake them too closely; or failed to see them altogether, as in one case highlighted in the episode that we reported on at the time, with a driver going the wrong way through a roundabout catapulting a cyclist and his bike through the air.
When this Panorama episode was first trailed last month – its transmission was delayed due to events in Westminster taking over the current affairs agenda – the title had many Twitter users raise concerns about how cyclists would be depicted in the programme, suggesting a similarly divisive approach to that used in previous takes on the subject.
The most notorious of those are Channel 5’s Cyclists: Scourge Of The Streets? from 2019, or the BBC’s own War on Britain’s Roads, aired back in 2012, both of which took a very one-sided approach and were roundly criticised by cycling campaigners, while providing ammunition for those who see all people on bikes as at best a nuisance and at worst, a bunch of law-breakers who have no place on the roads.
This latest programme, however, takes a very different approach, not least because it is presented by a journalist, Richard Bilton, who rides a bike himself, and follows him on a journey from his home in North Yorkshire down to London.
On the way, he stops off to talk to people including Cycling UK’s head of campaigns, Duncan Dollimore, and Andy Salkeld, cycling lead at Leicester City Council, which is transforming the East Midlands city for cyclists including through building segregated infrastructure.
We also hear from Jack Schofield, the cyclist hurled into the air by the driver on a roundabout in Leicestershire whom we mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, who returns to the scene of that crash, plus Mike van Erp – CyclingMikey – who uses action cameras to catch law-breaking drivers, particularly in London’s Royal Parks.
The most poignant segment of the programme focuses on the widows of cyclists Andy Coles and Damien Natale, killed by a driver on the A40 in Buckinghamshire in June 2020, who feel failed by the criminal justice system after the motorist, who admitted causing the death of their husbands through careless driving, received no more than a suspended sentence.
Bilton himself suffers a few close passes during his pieces to camera, and the programme also includes numerous clips featured in our Near Miss of the Day series and starkly shows the danger drivers pose to cyclists on a daily basis. The journalist highlighting that each week, two cyclists on average lose their lives on Britain’s roads.
There are some jarring notes, though – survey findings, for example, that found that a third of drivers don’t want cyclists on the road at all, and the appearance, for the sake of ‘balance’ presumably – of Spectator columnist and former BBC producer Rod Liddle, who two years ago said he found it “tempting” to stretch piano wire across roads used by cyclists.
He stopped short of repeating that, and nowadays it’s apparently just five per cent of people on bikes he has issues with, although he does believe that “some form of registration” of bike riders is needed. Still, at least we didn’t get Mr Loophole.
Those featured making the case for safe cycling infrastructure were largely people working full-time in the field, such as Dollimore and Salkeld, who have developed a clear understanding of the benefits to individuals and society of reducing car dependency and making it easier for people to choose cycling and walking for certain journeys.
Besides Liddle, however, contrasting voices were more of the person-in-the-street variety – a market stall holder in Leicester, for instance, who took Bilton on a tour of the city in her van to highlight her belief that the new cycling infrastructure wasn’t being used. If Salkeld was approached to give the city’s own figures on actual levels of usage, his response wasn’t featured.
It was perhaps a missed opportunity that someone of the stature of AA president Edmund King – who while being the public face of the country’s biggest motoring organisation also promotes the importance of using appropriate modes of transport, including cycling, for the journey being undertaken – was not invited to give their view.
And while the programme did feature the changes made to the Highway Code earlier this year to help protect vulnerable road users, it failed to highlight that the vast majority of adult cyclists also hold a driving licence.
Reaching London, it’s clear that Bilton is out of his comfort zone at the sheer volume of motor traffic cyclists are sharing the streets with – a chance, perhaps, to have highlighted the numbers of bike riders using safe infrastructure such as Cycleway 3 along the Embankment to demonstrate how it encourages more people into the saddle.
The focus in the capital instead is on the notorious Holborn Gyratory, where eight cyclists have lost their lives in the past decade and a half, and where Camden Council is now consulting on a range of measures including segregated cycle lanes that campaigners have long fought for.
The journalist is taken round the one-way system by a lorry driver in a segment that highlights exactly why there is such a pressing need for cyclists and motor vehicles to be kept apart there – something that the council’s plans, if implemented, will finally address.
On the whole, the programme does convey the dangers to which motorists subject cyclists on the country’s roads every single day, explaining why vulnerable road users need protection, and the role that safe infrastructure can play in that, without amplifying the voice of the minority (as surveys consistently find) opposed to such interventions which are made in the interests of road safety for all.
Which brings us back to that title, one that reinforces the misconception that drivers and cyclists are two distinct groups somehow in conflict with each other, when the programme itself highlights how those riding bikes, including the presenter himself, and whether for leisure or everyday trips, are people who simply want to get to their destination safely without being put at risk of serious injury or worse.
Panorama – Road Rage: Cars v Bikes is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer and airs this evening on BBC One (at 8pm in England, 8.30pm in Scotland and 11,40pm in Wales).
Simon joined road.cc 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.