Is anywhere safe from the lycra louts? Northern Ireland, actually.

Brendan O’Neill’s Daily Mail rant against cyclists made it’s way to the Northern Ireland airwaves – and a golden opportunity to challenge his perception and those of the local audience was missed

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“Is ANYWHERE safe from the lycra louts? They’ve got cycle lanes galore. But now they’re on pavements and jumping lights – and mowing down pedestrians”

Thus began Brendan O’Neill’s polemic in the Daily Mail on the 7th February 2017, piggy-backing Department for Transport (DfT) figures on collisions between pedestrians and cyclists in Great Britain.

It was a thinly-veiled excuse to launch a remarkable tirade filled with unrelated hackneyed clichés about the cyclist menace. How much filler? A heroic 35 paragraphs out of 42 bore no reference to the data. Road.cc was scathing of the column:

“A follow-up piece today on the Daily Mail’s website written by Brendan O’Neill .. uses those figures published yesterday for a verbal assault on cyclists that, even by the newspaper’s standards, is as vitriolic in its rhetoric as it is ignorant of the facts.”

O’Neill even managed to deconstruct the central theme of his own piece – the DfT data showing an average of one pedestrian / cyclist collision a day in GB during 2015:

“No doubt, the upward spike in cyclists careering into walkers is partly down to there being more people on bikes.”

O’Neill didn’t need the DfT data as an excuse to write this piece – he’s a professional columnist (and journalist and editor of Spiked Online) paid to impart controversial opinion in order to attract clicks.

Typical local scene of calm and safe interactions between people in motion

Sitting here in Northern Ireland, listening to the crickets chirping while tumbleweeds roll down the Stranmillis Embankment cycle track, one might be a little baffled by this pedestrian vs cyclist vs motorist war in GB. Is there really a rising menace posed by “smug eco-warriors” in here NI, and what did that particular dickish soundbite have to do with collisions anyway?

Luckily BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme lept into the breach to provide a platform for debate between Brendan O’Neill and smug eco-warrior Green Party candidate Tanya Jones.

A fair and balanced debate, with some of the dafter points challenged by William Crawley and a platform given to someone to defend cycling.

But what about the fact this was a BBC Radio Ulster talk show being broadcast in Northern Ireland to a Northern Irish audience with a presenter and guest from Northern Ireland, about an issue of rising collisions in Great Britain championed by an English protagonist.

There’s no doubt it was topical, sparked as it was by a national newspaper article of the same day which received plenty of attention for its strident rhetoric.

But this is Northern Ireland. So, you’d imagine the show’s producers might engage in some basic research before broadcast, such as finding the local equivalent data – just in the cause of “informing, educating, engaging” the local audience.

While William Crawley was right to pick out the sense that O’Neill’s fixation on cyclists’ behaviour was verging into assigning everyone on a bicycle with the same personality type, a listener could be forgiven for assuming the topic was about all cyclists in general, whether they be in London or Lurgan.

Without having the local equivalent information to hand, Talkback missed a crucial opportunity to challenge O’Neill’s use of collision data to further his opinions, and to talk about “cyclists’ behaviour” here in Northern Ireland.

Because, over the same time period (2009 to 2015) PSNI Road Collision Statistics show that collisions involving at least one pedestrian and a cyclist ACTUALLY FELL BY 20%. I’ll say that again.

The same data for Northern Ireland showed a 20% drop.

Overall pedestrian casualties have been falling over the last 18 years, and over the seven year period referenced by O’Neill it’s broadly unchanged. Data sourced from the PSNI by Bob Harper has been expertly compiled into a user-friendly chart.

But the 20% drop in NI vs a 50% rise in GB is not even the real story, because it’s almost embarrassing to reference that (factual) percentage change when you look at the bare numbers.

That’s no fancy graphical representation – each dot equals one collision. That’s four collisions last year. I’ll say that again.

That’s one pedestrian / cyclist collision every 3 months.

So when Brendan O’Neill comes on to BBC Radio Ulster hawking his “one collision every day” line it’s wildly irrelevant to Northern Ireland.

Is it the responsibility of the show’s producers to ensure this kind of (factual) information is injected into the debate, or was that solely down to Tanya Jones as the ostensilby pro-cycling guest? That’s not for me to judge.

In light of the Northern Ireland data, would this debate on BBC Radio Ulster have been of any real public interest without Brendan O’Neill’s fiery opinion piece (remember, the opinion of one man)? That’s not for me to judge.

Any road casualty is one too many. There were 787 pedestrian casualties in 2015, with 699 involving a car, 49 involving a goods vehicle and 26 involving a bus or coach. One of the first rules of journalism is “dog bites man isn’t news, but man bites dog is”. While general road safety is picked up by media outlets from time to time, it’s desperately out of kilter for O’Neill’s rant to focus attention on just 0.5% of hundreds of pedestrian casualties.

Imagine beginning a debate on car collisions with a tirade that drivers are “smug, arrogant, puffed-up, little emperors”.

William Crawley handled the debate expertly – and referenced the GB nature of the data -but the audience was left with a huge piece of the jigsaw missing – the local angle.

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Taxi driver unlawfully blocking a cycle lane (file under dog bites man)

O’Neill’s “rant” was even less palatable given that two people died while cycling on London’s streets the day before it was published.

Issues of cycling safety and recklessness are occasionally topical and important debates to have. It should be argued in print, on the internet and across the airwaves. We would all be so lucky to have a skilled and intelligent broadcaster like William Crawley to be the impartial voice in all of these discussions.

But if we’re having that debate here in Northern Ireland, give the audience the facts on the local situation – don’t lazily import in data which is wildly unrepresentative. By the PSNI numbers there is no cyclist menace here. People on bicycles are not “mowing down pedestrians” here. You would be forgiven for thinking the opposite having listened to O’Neill on Talkback.


O’Neill got what he needed out of the appearance – airtime to promote his Daily Mail column and his achingly edgy opinions. The Radio Ulster audience didn’t get what it needed – to be better informed about the reality of the issue here in Northern Ireland.

I’m reminded of Ian Paisley’s first meeting with Martin McGuinness where the Unionist firebrand said to his Republican foe-turned-partner:

“We don’t need Englishmen to rule us. We can do that ourselves.”

Northern Ireland doesn’t need an Englishman bringing his imagined road war over here from Great Britain. We’re getting on fine by ourselves.

(So the stats say.)

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