Yesterday the Townsville Bulletin reported that:
An elderly Townsville man was killed when he was knocked off his pushbike in Cluden yesterday morning.
Robert 'Bobby' Jackson was attempting to cross Racecourse Rd, when a ute stuck his pushbike about 7.30am.
It was believed the 80-year-old Wulguru resident was on his way home from the shop after buying milk when he rode in front of the passing ute.
It sounds like this was just a sad and unfortunate accident, and all sympathy goes to Mr Jacksons's family and friends.
But on aus.bicycle suzyj made this wise observation in reply to a statement that stories like this are becoming very common:
I'd actually say exactly the opposite. Cyclist deaths only rate a mention in the paper because they're reasonably infrequent, and thus novel.
The over-reporting of cyclist deaths is (IMHO) the main reason people think that cycling is a horridly dangerous (and thus terribly foolhardy) thing to do.
If they devoted a the same number of column inches to each of the 1200 odd people who get killed in cars, the 250 odd pedestrians, and the 200 odd motorcyclists, then there wouldn't be any room for any other news.
Very true. Flawed reasoning leads people to conlude that cycling is dangerous simply because cycling road accidents are reported more frequently. Argumentum ad nauseam (truth by repeated assertion) and misleading vividness (hasty generalisation from unusual events) are at play here. And images like the chilling photo of the accident scene in the Townsville Bulletin make the story all the more arresting.
Highlighting the downside?
Of course unusual stories sell newspapers – some may say it's the whole point of having them. This has become more clear to me since I started recording and commenting on media reports of cycling deaths and injuries (and in doing so I guess I contribute, in my own small way, to the effect of distorting the statistical reality). I've recently been considering commenting less frequently (or maybe not at all) about reported cycling injuries and deaths, largely because it heavily over-emphasises the downside. My internal jury is still out on that one, and I'd be interesting in hearing what others think about it.
That said, in a way it's probably a good thing that the mainstream media didn't run a story on the cyclist injured at Burnley last night. (I only heard about it in a Chinese whisper from another commuter this morning.) Apart from a call to talkback radio, which cfsmtb mentioned on aus.bicycle, that appears to be all. Maybe there was nothing "newsworthy" (read "exciting" or "novel") about it…
Indeed, you channelled my thoughts exactly when I said "probably a good thing". From the point of view of the general (non-cycling) public's perception of the safety of cycling it's a good thing that road trauma to cyclists doesn't become sensationalised. I'm sure perceptions of cycling being a high-risk activity are one of the reasons people don't take it up. As the original poster on aus.bicycle said about the recent death in Townsville:
When I read the headlines my first thought was "oh no not another cyclist" I dont feel that they are now rare because of the amount of media coverage and its "immediacy". In Townsville we often hear of incidents in, say, Perth within hours.
I have not kept a score but cycling deaths reported in the last year just seems to be a lot more often than "reasonably infrequent". Perhaps the media have penetrated my brain and all the reports are in continuous loop replay.
Also our daily "Bully" reports every cyclist incident that happens within coo-ee of here. A child falling off a bike and being uninjured in some far off village can get 6 column inches. They have quite a fixation in telling everyone that cycling is dangerous and constantly seek to reinforce that opinion. [emphasis added]
If the views of cyclists are being influenced in this way, what is the effect among non-cyclists? Ironically I believe that the more cyclists we have on the roads, the safer all cyclists are as drivers become better at looking out for bikes.
But (as you point out and I failed to even imply) accurate reporting of deaths and injuries to cyclists is important to help keep the general (driving) public aware of how exposed road cyclists are and the real danger a car poses to us. (Still, I'm not sure that my blog — surely one of the quietest corners of this interweb thingy — is the right place to keep that message in circulation.)
It seemed too coincidental that the day after that same show on 774 had received the traffic-advisory call they'd be having talkback on the subject of bikes and cars on the road. So I guessed the crash in Burnley had been mentioned but I missed the first half of that discussion (and the bit the I did hear was constantly interrupted by workmates who decided that while I had my headphones on listening to the radio was the perfect time to come up and have a chat). Regardless, my remark on the lack of newsworthiness of that incident preceeded that talkback programme by several hours.
In any case, I didn't notice that the mainstream print media picked it up, which is where these stories get widely disseminated via syndication and newsfeeds. Mention of the Burnley crash on 774 Melbourne is appropriate; sensationally headlining the story in some far-away newspaper would have been neither helpful nor worthy of being called "news".