Tuesday, 19 November 2013
I always wear helmet while cycling and I always will. It’s a personal choice. There’s a whole stack of studies that suggests this choice makes very little difference to my chances of head injury, yet I stick with it. I appreciate that the plural of anecdote is not data, but I’ve had two (both involving car drivers breaking the law) that ended with my helmet seriously damaged and my head unscathed. So I’ll keep on wearing one and I’d always encourage others to do likewise. As long as it’s properly fitted*, it’s not doing anyone any harm.
But I know there’s only so much a helmet can do. The EU standard for cycle helmets, EN1078, tests helmets’ resistance to impacts on flat ground and kerbstones at speeds of up to 5.52 metres per second, about 12mph. And that’s pretty much all it tests – impacts on a hard surface. It’s important, because it shows that cycle helmets are designed to protect your head from an impact with a hard surface at relatively low speeds. In short, they’re designed to stop you hurting your head when you fall off a bike.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a perfectly valid aim. As I said, I’ve bonked my head more than once and my helmet has taken the brunt of the impact.
But most of the cyclist fatalities we see in big cities, especially London, do not involve cyclists falling over and banging their heads. They involve huge buses, coaches and HGVs literally driving over the top of cyclists, more often than not while turning left. A helmet will not protect you in these circumstances, it is not designed to protect you and the manufacturers would not expect it to protect you. That’s not to say it won’t help you in other situations, but in this one? Absolutely not. For example, the post-mortem on Roger William De Klerk, the 43-year-old killed by a bus while cycling through Croydon, gave the cause of death as “compression of the head, neck and chest” – it seems very unlikely that a helmet would have made any difference at all (and Mr De Klerk may have been wearing one, I don’t know either way).
Yet every time a cyclist dies in such circumstances, questions are asked about whether the victim was wearing a helmet, regardless of whether it would have made any difference to the outcome of the accident. It’s bad enough when wannabe shockjocks and untalented local newspaper columnists do so, but lately the Met Police have joined in the fun, noting in press releases that the victims in various recent fatal accidents were not helmeted-up. It’s worth noting that a quick run through the Met’s press release archive did not immediately produce any descriptions of cyclist deaths that mentioned helmets when they WERE being worn, only when they were not.
It would be one thing if an inquest had taken place and the coroner had stated, based on the evidence presented, that a helmet would have saved the cyclist’s life. But that hasn’t happened. At this stage there is no evidence that a helmet would have made any difference at all in the death of a 21-year-old man in Whitechapel last week, yet the Met Police feel the need to add “The cyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time of the collision” to the end of their press release. There’s no mention of what the bus driver was or wasn’t wearing, so why comment on the fact that the cyclist was doing something perfectly legal?
This is the same police force that spent Monday morning stopping cyclists who were going about their business perfectly legally in order to tell them that they really should be wearing helmets and high-vis jackets, even though there is no legal requirement for either.
“So what,” I’ve heard many people say, “Helmets save lives and the police should do whatever they can to encourage cyclists to wear them”. I’m not going to wade into the debate about whether helmets reduce or increase risks; as I said at the start, I make the personal choice to wear one and that choice has no impact on other people.
But I will say this much. Banging on about whether dead cyclists were wearing helmets is wrong and it is dangerous. It is wrong because it suggests, even before enquiries have been completed, that the victim was in some way to blame for his or her own death. This is quite simply insulting to the dead cyclists and their families.
And it is dangerous because it fuels the attitude that cyclists are responsible for their own deaths if they are not wearing a helmet. It shifts the burden of responsibility for staying safe onto the most vulnerable road users. It absolves drivers of their responsibility and absolves the authorities of their responsibility. It shifts the focus of the political debate from what can actually be done to keep cyclists safe and onto a red herring that will make very little difference in HGV v bicycle incidents. “The problem isn’t with careless drivers or poor road design,” it says “It’s all down to cyclists not wearing helmets”.
Wear a helmet, don’t wear a helmet, it’s entirely up to you. But don’t for one moment pretend that they will prevent the kind of slaughter we have seen on London’s roads of late, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted from calling for the kind of changes that really will make a difference.
*An improperly fitted helmet can actually increase your risk of injury. Which is why people who say “Boris Bikes” and their ilk should come with helmets are very very wrong.
Friday, 7 June 2013
The Mail was delighted with the crackdown on "road hogs" but today they're firmly back in the "enforcing the law is a bad thing" camp.
The RAC Foundation has today published a weighty analysis of the impact of speed cameras on accident rates. The headline findings?
Deaths and serious injuries down a quarter near speed cameras
Analysis of datafor 551 fixed speed cameras in 9 areas shows that on average the number of fatal and serious collisions in their vicinity fell by more than a quarter (27%) after their installation.There was also an average reduction of 15% in personal injury collisions in the vicinity of the 551 cameras.
And that's the line that is being widely reported elsewhere, for example on the BBC:
And in the Belfast Telegraph:
But over in Mailworld, speed cameras have always been A Bad Things, unfairly penalising innocent drivers whose only crime is to break the law. So a report that describes a correlation between speed cameras and a fall in fatal and serious accidents cannot be allowed to stand. Fortunately for the narrative favoured by the Derry Street massive, the RACF also found that at just under four per cent of speed camera locations the number of serious accidents had increased following the installation of cameras. Which gives them the excuse to use this headline:
The story begins:
"Speed cameras are increasing the risk of a fatal or serious accidents in some areas, a study suggests. It highlights a number of sites where collision rates have risen ‘markedly’ since cameras were put in place. The study raises new doubts about the usefulness of speed cameras."
Of course, the study does nothing of the sort. Nowhere does it raise any "new doubts about the usefulness of speed cameras", which is why the Mail is unable to quote what any of them are. Over and over again the report underlines the decline in accidents after the installation of cameras:
"Seven of the ten results in Table A2.1 point clearly to reductions in PIC [personal injury collisions of all severities] ranging from about 9% to 32% following camera establishment. Two of the others indicate no change, and one points clearly to an increase of about 10%." - p31
"Nine of the ten results in Table A2.2 point clearly to reductions in FSC [fatal or serious collisions] ranging from about 15% to 53% following camera establishment. The other indicates an increase of about 5%, which could well have arisen by chance." - p32
"Six of the ten results in Table A2.3 point clearly to higher numbers of PIC per year in the last three full years before camera establishment than in previous years." - p36
"Five of the ten results in Table A2.4 point clearly to higher numbers of FSC per year in the last three full years before camera establishment than in previous years" - p37
"In terms of severity of collisions, this indicates that in the vicinity of cameras in this partnership area the number of casualties per collision was about 10% lower, the proportion of collisions that were fatal or serious was about 55% lower and the proportion of casualties that were KSI [killed or seriously injured] was about 50% lower after establishment of cameras than well before their establishment" - p45
The vast majority of the report points towards speed cameras making the roads safer. Yes, there is an an acknowledgement that in less than four per cent of cases the number of accidents has gone up, but the Mail even manages to misrepresent this. Professor Stephen Glaister from the RAC Foundation says:
"The study has also identified a number of camera sites in the vicinity of which collisions seem to have risen markedly. This may or may not be related to the cameras but warrants further investigation. Therefore, on the basis of this study, we have now written to eleven local authorities suggesting they examine the positioning and benefits of a total of 21 cameras."
Note the large caveat in bold - he's saying that further work is needed to establish whether speed cameras are responsible for the increase in accidents. How does the Mail present this?
"The RAC Foundation, who carried out the study, believes some of the cameras appear to be causing accidents rather than preventing them."
How exactly does the RAC Foundation saying "this may or may nor be related to the cameras" turn into the RAC Foundation believing "some of the cameras appear to be causing accidents"? To give the Mail some credit they do print the part of Prof Glaister's quote in which he adds this caveat. But they chop out the first half of his statement, which reads:
"At the end of 2010 we published a report by Professor Richard Allsop which concluded that without speed cameras there would be around 800 more people killed or seriously injured each year at that time. Overall his new work reinforces those earlier conclusions".
Instead, this is relegated to the very last line of the entire story, when it is not even run as a direct quote.
Elsewhere, the Mail tries to make us think the situation could be even worse, that speed cameras could be killing and maiming countless thousands of innocent drivers up and down the country.
"And [The RAC Foundation] say that because only a third of speed-camera partnerships overall supplied data in a usable form, the true extent of the problem could be much worse."
However, yet again the RAC Foundation have said nothing of the sort. The report highlights that two-thirds of bodies required to release data on speed cameras and accidents have failed to do so. And Prof Glaister complains that this is "dissapointing". But because the report was produced by a sensible academic, one who understands that you make judgements based on the evidence you can see rather than what you can't, it does not at any point say that "the true extent of the problem could be much worse". To claim they have done so is a total fabrication, a lie.
As if this hatchet job wasn't enough, the Mail decide to finish the job by introducing another pet hate:
"Supporters of speed cameras have given them the more politically-correct title of ‘safety cameras’"
Quite how calling something a "safety camera" instead of a "speed camera" is "politically correct" is beyond me, but it all adds to the Mail narrative of "bad stuff being forced on normal folk" - speed cameras, political correctness, I'm shocked they didn't try to squeeze gay marriage and Muslims in there somehow too.
Further down there's a reference to "so-called Safety Camera Partnerships". Why the "so-called"? That's what they ARE called. If we're going to start adding that prefix to statements that some may not agree with, it's only fair to call Ray Massey, the author of this piece a so-called journalist, and his employers a so-called newspaper.
Monday, 3 June 2013
Ministers have repeatedly been told off for abusing official statistics in an attempt to prove a point, while Michael Gove was amusingly exposed as having used a PR puff-poll advertising a crappy TV channel as the basis of claims about the standard of education under the previous government. Now it's Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb who has been caught making us his own facts.
This Government likes nothing more than a good crackdown, and back in May Webb announced the latest. He told the Daily Telegraph that people who live overseas and haven't paid National Insurance in the UK would no longer be entitled to a state pension based on their spouse's contributions. There are various holes in the policy - as Full Fact pointed out at the time, it's not exactly a massive problem to begin with, and a couple of days later the Telegraph itself highlighted that the policy could have unexpected consequences for "ex-pat wives" who trail around various overseas postings with their husbands.
But whatever you think of the policy, you can't deny Webb and his department the right to come up with such things. The problem is, he didn't end there.
In a bid to give the story legs, Webb said the following:
"Women married to British men, we are getting more of them claiming a pension based on his record. In some cases, they have never set foot in Britain at all.The claim that people who have "never set foot in Britain" are claiming pensions was widely reported. It made the second paragraph in the Telegraph story, the third in the Mail's version, was given airtime on the BBC and Sky and still picks up almost 2,000 hits on Google - and that's just for the exact wording.
"There are women who have never been to Britain claiming on their husband’s record. There are also men who have never been to Britain claiming on their wife’s record."
The trouble is, it's not true. Or at least, Webb has absolutely no idea whether or not it is, as his own department has just admitted.
As soon as I heard the claim, I smelled a rat - it seemed extremely unlikely that the government would have any means of cross-referencing every single visit to the UK with the NI records and pension claims of people living overseas. So I sent the Department for Work And Pensions an FoI request asking for their official numbers showing how many people claiming a spouse's pension in the way described by Webb had "never set foot in the UK".
"The information requested is not held by the Department as we do not collect information on whether State Pension claimants, who are not currently resident, have ever visited the UK."
So Steve Webb stood up in front of the national media and said something that has no basis in fact. It's entirely possible that some pension claimants have never visited the UK, but it's also possible that there is nobody in this situation. Webb doesn't know either way.
He could have got round this by saying "it's possible for someone to never visit the UK and still claim a pension", and he'd have been entirely right. But he didn't. He stated, as a fact, that "there are" men and women who have never set foot in Britain but are still claiming pensions here, and he said it despite having no way of knowing whether or not it's true.
It all raises a few questions.
Why does the government think it's acceptable for ministers to create their own facts in order to support their opinions? Why do so many otherwise sensible journalists blindly repeat claims made to them by politicians without checking their provenance?
And has Steve Webb himself had a change of heart since 2006 when, in a speech to the NHS Confederation conference he attacked the Labour administration by saying:
"So much for evidence-based policy. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is making it up as it goes along!"
Saturday, 21 May 2011
It’s been a fun year or so, and I’d like to think that I’ve provided some entertaining and thought-provoking articles. One post even managed to bring in 12,000 readers on one day , which would be considered a decent-sized crowd at a League Two football match (although that was mostly down to getting RT'd by the mighty Ben Goldacre).
High points included getting the PCC to rule that Richard Littlejohn was a liar and getting the Department for Communities and Local Government to admit that Eric Pickles’ claims about councils banning Christmas were not based on anything more than a tabloid urban myth.
But these were simultaneously low points, too. The PCC refused to uphold the complaint against Littlejohn because, astonishingly, they said he lied so often his readers wouldn’t assume he was telling the truth about anything, and that lying was actually just a rhetorical device.
And despite repeated letters and complaints (most of which I didn’t publish here) DCLG refused to retract Pickles’ claims and the minister himself keeps tweeting cheerfully away about openness and transparency and how Labour used to make things up just to get headlines.
So that’s the main reason I’m giving up. I’m sick of getting angry about what journalist and politicians say, pointing out the errors and nothing ever changing. I’m sick of the omerta-like code among the national press that prevents them ever criticising each other for fear of having their own dirty washing aired in public. I’m sick of the fact that a man can get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for writing that prostitutes deserve to be murdered and that a woman hasn’t really been raped if she wasn’t violently beaten up by a stranger in the process.
In the words of Chris TT - who really deserves to be known as a supremely talented singer-songwriter rather than just that guy who started that #iamspartacus thing - “the Daily Mail readers have defeated me”. Why should I spend hours carefully researching the facts behind a story so that a thousand or so people can read it when hundreds of thousands of people, millions even, have already read the Mail’s version and decided that it’s true?
We live in an age where truth is defined by Wikipedia, and where any online argument can be won by providing a link to a story that supports your point of view, regardless of whether that story has any basis in truth whatsoever.
Newspapers demand an end to injunctions so they can delight in publishing sordid details of a footballer’s private life, claiming they must be able to report such information as part of their fundamental right to free speech, their divine mission to bring the truth to the people of Britain. Yet day after day after day the same newspapers publish lies – not opinions I disagree with, not even just wild distortions of the facts, but outright lies.
The same newspapers that insist that self-regulation works and that any attempt to restrict what they publish is unacceptable spent the whole of last Christmas smearing the name of an innocent man who had never even been charged with any crime, let alone convicted. In their rush to get “the truth” about him to the public, they went out of their way to print claims that he was a liar, a pervert, a lunatic, a man obsessed with death.
And once one paper starts behaving in such a way, the rest have to join in for fear of being left behind, of missing out on the story. Tony Blair was widely mocked when he accused the media of behaving like a pack of feral beasts, but I fail to see what was wrong with what he said. Accuracy no longer matters in journalism, only getting their first or at the very least churning out what your rivals have already published so that nobody can accuse you of missing the story.
So what if you’ve accused an innocent man of being a suspected paedophile? So what if you’ve accused a missing child’s parents of murdering her? Everyone will forget about it in a few weeks and you can move on to the next sucker. And in the meantime you can publish an outraged story about a woman who made a false allegation of rape, because isn’t it awful that this poor man has had his name dragged through the mud and shouldn’t she really be sent to prison for doing such a terrible thing?
It’s just the tabloids that are guilty of the pack mentality. Has anyone ever actually learned anything from an interview on the Today programme, apart from the fact that John Humphreys likes the sound of his own voice? Over on Newsnight Paxman has become a parody of himself – fuck finding out the truth, Brand Paxo depends on him sneering at his guests, interrupting, arguing, never actually interviewing them. And waiting in the wings are an army of wannabe Paxmans, all thinking that the pinnacle of journalistic achievement involves asking Michael Howard the same question 3,000 times, all thinking that they’re terribly clever because they know that the first rule of interviewing a politician is to ask yourself “why is this bastard lying to me”, even if he’s not.
Sigh. I’ve just poured all this out in one go. Ijust re-read it and it's a bit ranty. I was going to edit it to make it scan better or make a bit of sense but figured I’d leave it as at it is. Sorry about that.
Thanks for all the nice comments, re-tweets, and general lovelyness over the past 12 months. It all helps me remember that not everyone in the world is a Mail-reading arse.
AND FINALLY... There’s no particular reason why you should be interested in my opinion, but if you are here are 10 simple rules to live by:
- Visit TabloidWatch, 5CC and Minority Thought on a regular basis. They do what I do, but more often, better, funnier and with less swearing.
- If a headline has a question in it, the answer is almost certainly “no”.
- Pineapple juice with psyllium husk helps you lose weight but lacks nutritional value.
- Admit it, Mad Men jumped the shark around about the time of the lawnmower accident.
- The phrase “jumped the shark” jumped the shark long before I started using it.
- Cold weather in northern Europe in the winter is not evidence that global warming is a myth.
- Never read the Wikipedia entry for “notable alumni” from your secondary school, unless you want to feel like a miserable failure.
- Edward Is Deadward by Emmy The Great really should be in your record collection (or on your iPod). Her continued lack of international superstardom baffles me, especially at a time when Mumford and Sons are touring stadiums.
- Dan & Dan’s Daily Mail Song is simultaneously the funniest and most depressing thing on YouTube.
- Don’t believe what you read in the paper. Any paper. Ever.
Wednesday, 4 May 2011
Littlejohn's first post-OBL column appears today. I could go on about the way he equates a mass-murdering terrorist living near a military academy in Pakistan with some non-mass-murdering non-terrorists building a mosque near a military academy in England, but I figured it would be more fun to cut to the chase:
"From what we can gather, there was no British involvement in this operation, which is probably just as well. Judging by the rules of engagement now imposed on our armed forces, if we’d tracked down Bin Laden we’d have had to read him his human rights, assign him a Legal Aid lawyer, cook him a religiously appropriate dinner and hand out nicotine patches to any of his lieutenants trying to give up smoking and suffering withdrawal symptoms."Does Richard 'Cloaca' Littlejohn have a single original thought in his tiny little mind? How much, exactly, is the Mail paying him to either recycle his old columns and books or spew out cliches as predictable as this?
Friday, 15 April 2011
Now you don't have to have been at this tabloid-watching malarky very long to see a headline like that and instantly think "What are the chances that said ban ISN'T down to health and safety - or even the childish cloacaism that is 'Elf N Safety', something that surely has no place in a serious news story?" And were you to think that, you would of course be entirely correct. In the intro, lazy hack Nick Fagge, perhaps jealous of colleague Steve Doughty's 5CC tabloid bullshit of the month award, makes this bold claim:
Every year the Christians from different churches get together to march a 400-yard route to celebrate Easter. But this year their Good Friday parade has been banned – because it breaches health and safety laws.
This being a Mail health and safety story, Nick is legally required to undermine his own argument within the next few paragraphs. Hence these two sentences:
Previously organisers of the parade in Willesden, north London, had only needed to inform police of their route. But new red tape means they now need permission from Brent Council. Officials said they banned the procession because they were contacted too late to carry out a ‘consultation’ to close the roads.
And just in case you failed to understand that, there’s a handy quote from a council spokesman that spells it out extremely clearly (tucked away at the end of the article, natch):
“Brent Council was not contacted about the march until around a week ago. There is a strict legal procedure we have to follow to issue a traffic order closing roads so people can march in the highway, which includes advertising and consultation, and this takes about five weeks. We are very sorry to say there is now not enough time for us to legally facilitate this march.”
So it’s got nowt to do with health and safety at all – the council simply has rules requiring five weeks advance notice of any planned road closures so that people not involved in an event have time to plan for the road closure. The Catholic priest in charge of the march failed to check with the council five weeks ahead (maybe he forgot when Easter was?) so the road can’t be closed. I suppose you could accuse the council of being a little officious and inflexible, but thems the rules. And they have nothing whatsoever to do with health and safety, despite what the sub claims in the headline and Fagge claims in his intro.
The Mail has been blaming health and safety for everything from stepping stone repair to the non-banning of secret santa to parking arrangements at cheese-rolling events for donkey’s years now, but what makes this story remarkable is the way the paper has elbowed in a second pet theme – Christians being persecuted by authority and treated worse than assorted minority groups. Normally this kind of story has at least a vague basis in fact. But this time round it comes entirely from the imagination of the priest who forgot to give five weeks notice to the council:
Father Hugh MacKenzie, of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, said: “The rights of Christians are being overlooked in favour of the rights of Islamic groups and gay rights organisations.”
Riiiiiight. The road won’t be closed because the priest failed to follow the rules, yet this is evidence of the rights of Christians not being respected in Britain? What rights are those then? The right to break the law? The right to be treated MORE favourably than other people who want to organise a road closure?
“One does wonder whether if it was a homosexual rights or Islamic group the council would have been more flexible, as it doesn’t seem like rocket science to permit us to walk 400 metres. The rights of Christians are just not respected in Britain.”
And is there any evidence that Brent Council has been more flexible with homosexual rights groups or Islamic groups? Anything to prove the claim that the rights of Christians are being overlooked in favour of such people? No, there’s absolutely nothing. It’s just the slightly unnerving ramblings of a disorganised priest. But hey, his outlandish claims chime with the Mail’s ongoing narrative about Christians being treated worse than the minority groups the paper loathes so much, so Nick duly sets out to come up with some rock-solid evidence supporting Father Hugh:
And? Brent has huge a huge population of Sikhs and Hindus, so it’s not much of a shock that they hold a Diwali celebration. But how is this in any way related to the story? Did the council fail to advertise any associated road closures five weeks in advance? Or is the Mail just complaining because the council put on an event aimed primarily at brown people? Oh wait, there’s more:
Brent Council hosts a Diwali street celebration every year. Last November it boasted it had held the biggest Diwali event in the country, after more than 60,000 people turned out.
And in July last year the council appealed to the Muslim community to notify it of any Eid events so it could promote them free of charge. But it did not do the same for other religious festivals.OMFG! STOP THE PRESSES! Brent Council offered to promote festivities being staged by a minority group so that people from the majority, who may otherwise be unaware, could get involved! BUT THEY DIDN’T ADVERTISE CHRISTMAS!!!!!!! Which is a travesty, because, without the council telling people, NOBODY WOULD KNOW THAT CHRISTMAS WAS TAKING PLACE! Sure, they might be a little confused as to why all the shops were really busy, there were decorations up everywhere and they had two days of work, but without the council telling them what was going on they’d never have any idea that it was all related to an obscure little festival celebrated by a tiny religious group called “Christians”.
If Father Hugh wants to trot out tired lines about being part of a persecuted minority that’s his lookout, but if Nick Fagges wants to call himself a journalist and the Mail wants to call itself a newspaper, they have a duty to seriously investigate whether his claims have any substance. Who knows, maybe just yesterday a group of gay Muslims were given permission to close the M1 for three hours at the drop of a hat – if it happened, Father Hugh has a point and the story has some merit. But based on the facts provided by the Mail, it’s nothing but another attempt to win sympathy for Christians at the expense of other groups, something the Mail is all too happy to collude with. And based on some of the comments from readers, it certainly seems to be working:
Wednesday, 16 March 2011
Journalist can't abide people making money from the royal wedding, so gets paid to write 500 words about how awful it is
"Yesterday, I went on to their Party Pieces website to have a closer look at the scratch cards. I typed 'royal wedding' into the search facility and up popped an entire menu of offerings, from 'royal wedding Kate' — which throws up 24 products — to 'royal wedding party products', which brings up a jaw-dropping 1,883 items, an endless array stretching from drink stirrers to invitation holders to cake boxes."For the purposes of comparison, I typed "royal wedding kate" into the Daily Mail's search facility. I don't know if the 759 results it brought up counts as "jaw-dropping", but I do know that it's more than 30 times as many hits as the Middletons had on their site. The simple phrase "royal wedding" produces 2,679 hits on the Mail's site, which isn't so much jaw-dropping as jaw-falling-off-your-head-entirely-inducing.
And as for those 1,883 hits on "Royal wedding party products", is Parsons really that shocked given that the company in question sells party products, and that a lot of people buy party products for their own weddings? Further inspection suggests that the search engine is returning matches for ANY of the words, not ALL of them - which is why it turns up things like this:
Yes, those awful Middletons. Why can't they stop cashing in on their daughter's wedding with their clockwork train sets and their pink party shoes? I bet on the day of the wedding they'll even sink so low as to try and cash in by producing a 36-page full-colour souvenir supplement about the day...