7 January 2014

The government THINK! campaign is fairly unambiguously named. It implores us to do one thing: THINK!

But, to copy a set of decisions laid out before you; to take them at face value; is that to THINK?

What are we being taught to THINK? Are we even being taught to THINK! at all?

The film

THINK! recently promoted a film via Twitter. I confess to having been quite confused as to its provenance. The production quality is so high, and the storytelling device so well-aligned with many road safety campaigns, that I thought it was an official film. Indeed, it’s been branded in the closing credits by Somerset Road Safety Partnership, a government initiative. (Edit: the film in its current form isn’t officially endorsed; please see this response for a definitive statement on that.)

However, whilst it’s quite unclear exactly what involvement professional road safety teams had in its making (Edit: or at least, it was when I first wrote this), the film is fundamentally the product of students. And while I’ll gladly admit to any error in misunderstanding the film’s provenance, the fact that it could easily pass as an official film is quite telling.

Anyway, have a watch.

The way in which this film is constructed is totally unambiguous. Two alternative realities, side by side. One ends in a tragic collision, the other is perfectly safe and uneventful: the Unsafe Reality and the Safe Reality.

And so the message, delivered through this storytelling device so often used in road safety campaigns, is equally unambiguous: Choose the Safe Reality. Make these decisions. THINK!

What to do

Take note of the decisions that are very clearly portrayed in the Safe Reality. There are three: the use of a rear light (yes, just a rear light; we’ll come back to that), the use of a brightly-coloured vest, and the use of a helmet.  Rear light, bright vest, helmet. They’re the sole differences between choosing Safe Reality or Unsafe Reality.

Now let’s take a closer look at the incident (or would-be incident, for all you Safe Reality dwellers) which is portrayed.

What to see

The teenager on the bicycle is riding along an unlit rural road. He approaches a junction, illuminated by a street light, where a driver is looking to pull out from a side road. The driver needs to look to his right to check for approaching traffic.

The unsurprising happens: in the Unsafe Reality there is a collision and in the Safe Reality there is not.

But wait a moment. Let’s take a look at a couple of frames from the film.


Here’s the scene just before the cyclist appears. Nothing is visible up the road in either reality, because in neither case did our cyclist choose to use a front light.

Now let’s look again, just a moment later. Remember: Safe Reality is on the Right, Unsafe Reality is on the left.


Now we can see that the cyclist in the Safe Reality is visible, whilst the cyclist in the Unsafe Reali…


Um… The cyclist in the Unsafe Reality is visible as well.

Actually, he’s at least as visible as the one in the Safe Reality.

Maybe that’s because the guy in the Safe Reality didn’t bother with a front light either…? And maybe the vest doesn’t actually make any difference…?

Hang on, though. This is getting confusing. I mean, the film was supposed to be unambiguous. The guy in the Unsafe Reality is an idiot, right? It’s his fault that he got hit. He made the wrong decisions. He chose Unsafe Reality. All he can expect is to be mown down and left on the tarmac with his wheel spinning. I know we could see him – yes, yes, he’s visible – but he wasn’t safe. Doesn’t matter if you’re visible, you need a yellow vest to be safe. And a polystyrene hat.

Where to look

Hopefully you’ve noticed that in Safe Reality the driver is looking towards oncoming traffic, whilst in Unsafe Reality he isn’t. I mean, it seems kinda obvious once you freeze the motion.

Thing is, that’s what’s making the difference between Safe Reality and Unsafe Reality. The cyclist is equally visible in both cases: the difference is whether or not the driver looks.

Yet the message remains doggedly about cycling accessories which, certainly in this scenario, demonstrably don’t aid visibility one tiny bit.

What to focus on

Let’s return to that issue of the front light. Curiously, one of the students who made the video commented below it that “filming the bike head on with a front light obscured the bike and rider, distracting from the other messages of having a rear light, helmet and reflective clothing“. Astonishingly, the front light was omitted precisely because of its visibility: as if a bright light moving along the road is somehow completely unrelated to the likelihood that there is a person somewhere close behind it.

The underlines one of the key aspects of contemporary road safety education, which is to focus on – and have faith in – the paraphernalia at the exclusion of other aspects. It’s a form of tunnel vision, focusing on things that are supposed to address an arbitrary problem, rather than on the actual problem that needs to be addressed.

Thus here the aim is to promote the use of a rear light, a bright vest (the one used in the video is not reflective) and a helmet. This aim is – despite its irrelevance to the events played out – pursued with such zeal that other aspects are cast aside, including the one thing that would actually help.

Here’s the real point, then: I don’t want to be critical of the students’ work per se – as I say, it passes entirely convincingly for a professional road safety film – but the fact that students are constructing their films in this way is symptomatic of road safety campaigns’ attitudes. They’re copying how the professionals do it. They’re thinking the way the professionals want them to THINK!

People have been conditioned to focus on the light, the vest, the helmet. They’re good, right? They’ll protect you. We can concoct any old scenario, one in which none of these are actually pertinent, and they’ll still work. That’s the message. And that message not only gets the rubber stamp of the government’s road safety campaign for Somerset, it gets the promotion of the government’s national THINK! campaign.

Who to blame

Here’s an example of the conditioning that leads to this thinking. This video – there are more here – is from the THINK! campaign’s “Tales of The Road” sub-campaign, which is aimed at 6-11 year olds. (Start ’em young…)

In case you’re watching without sound, here’s the poem that’s read out in the film:

She always liked to look her best / So didn’t wear a nice bright vest / Or any clothing that was bright / When she was out at nearly night

But traffic couldn’t see her, see / And now she isn’t so trendy / A car drive right into her guts / And covered her with bruisy cuts

A lovely message to send to a 6-year old, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Just as with the students’ film, the behaviour of the driver is ignored. In fact, it’s far worse. The campaign can’t even bring itself to admit that there is someone controlling the car.

The traffic couldn’t see her.

A car drove into her guts.

Despite the fact that the girl is shown in the beams of a car’s headlamps, the driver of the car is completely absolved of responsibility to see her; in fact the driver is completely airbrushed from the narrative. It’s the traffic that couldn’t see. It’s the car that hits her. It’s her fault for not wearing bright clothing. It’s not the driver’s fault for being unable to stop for things which are in front of, and illuminated by, the vehicle that he or she is supposedly controlling.

And recall the frame from the video above, which shows just how effective bright clothing is. It isn’t – even when the light becomes marginal. Yet this is touted as the solution. Kids should ditch any aspirations to “look their best”, and choose a yellow vest.


Well, we can see that the vest’s ineffective, so only one conclusion remains: Once the victim has obeyed the instructions and worn the uniform of the damned, the collision can be written off as one of those things.

We did all we could.

People – wait, sorry – cars just drive into people.

Shit happens.

Still, at least you wore a vest, so whilst you’re in hospital you can at least be reassured that whilst we won’t be blaming anyone in the car, we won’t be blaming you, either. You did your bit. Well done. What do you mean, “why is this still happening?”

Again: promoting faith in trinkets, failing to identify the source of danger, ignoring the key protagonist. Placing the responsibility and the blame upon the victim by exhorting them to use tools which do not solve the problem, instead of exhorting those with the lethal vehicles to change their behaviour. Those people are viewed as being their vehicles. And you can’t change a vehicle’s behaviour, because it has none of its own.

What to THINK!

All of this is flawed. Deeply flawed. All of this encourages flawed thinking, because it’s the product of flawed thinking.

It encourages people on bicycles to THINK! that things like vests and helmets will stop people driving into them. The message in the first film makes one thing starkly clear: other than the use of accessories, there is no behavioural difference between Safe Reality and Unsafe Reality. The film encourages people to THINK! that their behaviour is entirely unimportant.

At the same time, it encourages people in cars to THINK! that if they drive into anyone who’s not festooned with accessories then it’s not really their fault, but that of the person they hit – even if they’re actually every bit as visible as those with accessories.

And it encourages all of us to THINK! that the victims are to blame; that collisions just happen; that a road user is defined more by what you see – the human or the shell of the vehicle – than by where the brain lies, and that responsibility is apportioned accordingly.

And none of these groups should be encouraged to THINK! in these deeply dangerous ways.


By way of a coincidence, yesterday I experienced the exact scenario in the first film. Riding along a road, a driver approached from a side road to my left. He failed to look, failed to see me, and continued straight into the road just as I was passing.

I was using an excellent front light; I had reflective material on my frame, fork, tyres, rear rack, messenger bag, gloves and jacket. The road was fully illuminated, unlike the scene in the video. Yet still I was not seen.

So, whilst lights are legally required and useful, and reflective material is useful, they have zero effect against a driver who does not THINK!

Fortunately I’ve survived the roads long enough to THINK! about ensuring I have a full lane to use for evasive manoeuvres whenever possible, and to THINK! that every car near me on the road has my number on it. So this time I was able to avoid the car and a collision.

Instead of teaching people to use accessories, stubbornly ignoring their relevance to any danger which is likely to come their way, we should be teaching vulnerable users to THINK! about anticipating every driver error and to THINK! about their escape strategy for every error that should actually unfold.

But, far more importantly, we should be teaching drivers how to THINK! about looking.

Hopefully the people at THINK! might, with some persuasion, THINK! of better ways for us all to THINK!

Further reading

If you’ve managed to get this far, you may want to skim these: first, a study that shows hi-viz has no effect on passing distances; and second, a study that shows hi-viz has no effect on collision involvement rates.


  1. Gaz 7 January 2014 10:36pm #

    i totally agree, I dont ride at night unless i have to anyway, i certainly wouldnt set off without lights on front and rear. seems like the film was devised by someone who doesnt own or use a bike.

  2. MrHappyCyclist 7 January 2014 10:40pm #

    You didn’t mention that the driver in the safe reality was actually looking, whereas the one in the unsafe reality wasn’t. (At least in the two frames you showed. )

    • Bez 7 January 2014 10:42pm #

      Er… Yes I did 🙂

      • MrHappyCyclist 8 January 2014 3:32pm #

        Apologies, you did. Can’t think how I missed it!

        • Bez 8 January 2014 3:49pm #

          It was a later addition. I thought it went in before I published, and it did go in before you commented, but maybe I’m wrong on the former bit and maybe you were reading an older version. Hey ho – I ended up rewriting most of the post anyway 🙂

  3. carmarthenbaywatcher 8 January 2014 9:26am #

    Great post. Bez, do you know if the people who do these campaigns or write the drivel you rightly criticize read your blog?

    • Bez 9 January 2014 12:22am #

      I have no idea 🙂 …Though the people who produced the Nice Way Code certainly read the posts about that last summer.

  4. bz2 8 January 2014 9:28am #

    There’s no real point in criticising individual aspects of such a film. The bottom line is that no-one actually watches these things, least of all the people who pose the biggest danger on the road. Using the budget on a single on-road improvement probably prevents more harm than this misleading film.

    • Bez 9 January 2014 12:23am #

      Possibly. But it’s a useful example of the misguided approach that’s widespread in road “safety” culture.

  5. Swanky Cyclist (@UrbaneCommuter) 8 January 2014 9:30am #

    This is a shame, the Think! campaign for motorcycles concentrated on getting drivers to look out, this undermines that and attributes blame to innocent parties.
    If they’d done this to the motorcyclists the shit would really have hit the fan. Perhaps the motorcycle press would be interested to know their court cases are being prejudiced by this?

  6. George White 8 January 2014 9:54am #

    Definitely done by someone who has never been near a bike.

    • Bez 9 January 2014 12:24am #

      Actually, if you follow through the links on YouTube, that’s not the case at all.

  7. Joel C 8 January 2014 2:15pm #

    The student video clearly rips off … ahem… “was inspired by” this Health Education Board Scotland advert (about smoking heroin):

    • Bez 8 January 2014 2:36pm #

      I would imagine there are countless public information films out there that use the same device. Pretty sure I’ve seen it a few times before, although I can’t produce any specific examples.

      It’s really about reducing a complex scenario to a very simple decision: to turn down heroin, or to wear a yellow vest.

      The difference is that to turn down heroin actually is a simple choice that will avoid all the problems of heroin (aside from people forcing or tricking you to take it, which is analogous to intentionally driving a car at someone), the sequence of events in a road collision and the factors that contribute to them are not so simple.

      Donning a coloured vest does not simply avoid road collisions in the same way that not taking heroin avoids the problems of heroin. People do not control the cars around them as the control the drugs that they put into themselves.

      And there’s the key to it: road safety campaigners have seen the nice, clean “just say no” simplicity of anti-drugs campaigning and tried to apply it to a complex scenario.

      Moreover, they’ve taken that level of control that the potential drug user has and forced it upon people who walk and cycle, when they’re simply not empowered with that level of control.

      It’s naive, it’s unthinking, and it’s harmful.

  8. George White 8 January 2014 8:02pm #

    Note the autonomous *traffic* which cannot see her, and the *car* which drove into her in that poem.

    A *person* did not see her, and a *person* drove into her. Language matters.

  9. Dave H (@BCCletts) 9 January 2014 3:44am #

    Yes that’s the next stage of the process, as we’ve almost elimated the use of the word accident and replaced it with ‘crash’ or collision.

    Now lets keep saying the driver of the car or truck rather than the car or truck had the collision.

    My next push is to look at how forcing priority simply because you can threaten the lesser road user with the scale of your vehicle and the lack of fear you display in making the threat.

    Occasionally as a pedestrian and as a cyclist I can out-bottle a bully – especially running a red light or failing to observe Rule 170 – yielding to pedestrians already crossing a side road into which you are turning.

    At just over a tenth of a ton I know that I can do moderate damage to a car, if it hits me at a lower urban speed, and with reasonable muscle tone I’ll bounce and roll, and so I’m perhaps more likely to stand my ground against someone using a motor vehicle to threaten me, but it should not have to be like this.

    A key example of this intimidation is when a large vehicle turns left, not from the left side of the road but from far over to the right. I’m not talking of the basic pull out slightly and then swing left, but a full blown approach in the right hand lane(s), followed by a left turn forcing the drive’s priority on any traffic legitimately with priority using the nearside lane. The basic deal is “you’d better stop, as if not I’ll drive into you” and in a serious number of crashes the road user in the nearside lane is a cyclist, and they are killed.- It happened at least twice in November last year.

    Two points arise – first the threatening and dangerous move is a deliberate act by the driver turning left – which should surely be classed as dangerous driving – as it certainly isn’t a momentary lapse to turn left and force your passage through traffic in the lane on the left side of your vehicle. Second there will be certain road junctions where drivers of large vehicles will make left turns in this way because the geometry of the road does not permit a left turn from the nearside lane. Well this is a dangerous way of using the road, and so the answer is to ban left turns made this way, and send large vehicles by an alternative route, or to re-engineer the left turn so that a large vehicle can turn left without such a dangerous manouevre.

  10. John Morrison 9 January 2014 10:04am #

    Two cheers for this. Of course most ‘road safety’ conventional wisdom is nonsense. The road safety profession is funded by and biased towards motorists. I do worry however that inexperienced cyclists are being sent a message that it’s really uncool to have lights on the bike or to wear hi-vis clothing. As a driver as well as a cyclist I know how important it is to be as visible as possible on a bike after dark. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • Bez 9 January 2014 10:06am #

      Who’s sending the “uncool to have lights” message?

  11. Simon 9 January 2014 11:48am #

    Hi all – can I point out one important fact relating to this film? This is a student produced entry to a Somerset County Council road safety competition. It was posted by the student who made the film (technically they shouldn’t have used our logo but we’re not going to make an issue of that). It is not an “official” film and whilst the interest from beyondthekerb is welcome, could I suggest the site and comments reflect this is just a competition entry from a youngster with an interest in road safety. I’m happy to point you towards the eventual winner – and for all I know this entry may be it! – but for now it is an entry and no more.
    Simon Clifford
    Somerset County Council

    • Bez 9 January 2014 1:03pm #

      Thanks for the clarification, Simon. Much appreciated.

  12. Adam 10 January 2014 11:07am #

    Thanks for a good article, but I think that there is something you have missed out. It’s that these videos that treat traffic as an inhuman unchangeable entity are aimed squarely at children who are not drivers. You want to teach then the differences THEY can make. There’s no point in teaching them a driver’s responsibilities because they don’t drive.

    The dangerous thing is that this idea that it’s entirely the pedestrian/cyclist’s responsibility to ensure that they don’t get run over lingers on into adulthood and gets absorbed into the national psyche. This is in part counteracted by the films shown to young drivers, but perhaps it’s not enough.

    • Bez 10 January 2014 11:15am #

      I’m all for teaching kids that they need to be careful. I have two of my own and the first is right at the stage where this is a prominent issue to deal with.

      I do it by telling him that other people make mistakes; that he can’t assume people have seen him; that he can’t reliably infer anything from whether a car’s indicators are on.

      The focus is very much on keeping that other person in the equation and on understanding their failings, whether they’re a matter of culpable negligence or simple human fallibility.

      I absolutely don’t tell him that he has to wear certain things to be considered safe, or that it’s as simple as making one decision and that’s that. I try and steer it towards an approach where he will end up considering others’ behaviour – mistakes and all – rather than simply considering his own.

      In other words: teaching him safe behaviour as a coping strategy for others’ failings, rather than as his own responsibility.

  13. chrisrust 14 January 2014 10:56pm #

    I assume that THINK! is related to the THINK BIKE! safety campaign about motorcycles. THINK BIKE! seems to have achieved two things:
    1. Completely confused me and probably quite a lot of people since when you see a picture of a motorbike and the words “THINK BIKE!” you don’t even know if it’s aimed at you, let alone what you might do about it. Since, as a car driver, I don’t have any idea what I might do to make motorcyclists more safe I ignore it.
    2. Plastered the countryside with ugly yellow signs that don’t conform to any of the excellent standards established for road signs in this country. Garish, untidy and racking up the visibility arms race as other signs become less noticeable.

    Thinking is very overrated, humans don’t really have much capacity for abstract complex thought and they can’t do it in the heat of the moment. What they are very good at is having strategies for responding, often rapidly without too much reasoning, to things that happen around them, if we want to improve their behaviour we have to improve their alertness and help them refine and sharpen those responses.

    When I was 7 years old (61 years ago) we had a great road safety demonstration in the school playground. A man rode a bike too close to a car and was dramatically doored. For the rest of my life I’ve cycled with that image in my mind and without thinking I eye up every car I ride past to assess my risk of being doored. It’s worked very well so far.

  14. D. 15 January 2014 11:23am #

    Just a bit of a story, here.

    I was waiting in a traffic queue this morning, and a vehicle horn hooted somewhere behind me. I ignored it, figuring it was “somebody else’s problem” (TM Douglas Adams).

    It hooted again, then again, so I looked back:

    Two cars behind me, another guy on a bike was also waiting in the queue, one foot on the kerb, literally just in front of a big tipper truck (and almost certainly in its blind spot).

    But as I turned to look, the truck driver opened his door, hung round off the door (engine still running, mind, so not sure how I feel about that) and shouted at the cyclist that “you don’t have a front light, mate, I didn’t even see you coming, then”.

    The bloke on the bike looked vaguely round at him, then looked forward again (he had headphones on, so clearly he also thought it was somebody else’s problem too).

    I *really* wish I’d seen what had happened just before the hooting (I know what I *think* happened, but couldn’t possibly comment).

    Anyway, I guess my point is kind of what you’ve said in your post – a red tail light alone, isn’t really enough in the dark (even on street-lit streets).

  15. kruidigmeisje 18 January 2014 6:47pm #

    Funnily, in NL we had a road safety campaign that told to “drive with your hart”, convincing car drivers to envision the results of (their) not looking and therefore being incapable of preventing the safe homecoming of a kid. Same desired result, but different strategie. I hate to use road stats to show which campaign i think is the moat effective ….

  16. Keith Stephen 1 February 2014 10:03am #

    I think the answer they are really looking for to the question “who would you rather be?” at the end of the video is – “the car driver”.
    Just don’t bother to cycle, it’s rubbish, and you really should be driving at your age.

  17. Tim 29 October 2014 12:26pm #

    The reason people are so keen on helmets and hi-vis etc is that cycling feels unsafe and people feel powerless to do anything about it. Buying a helmet makes a person feel they, as an individual, have a degree of control. This is so compelling that it can even negate the fact that the benefits might be limited or even negligible (eg non-reflecting hi-vis at night).

    Yesterday I heard a representative of the Iraqi security services, defending the continuing use of the ADE-651 “bomb detector” at Baghdad checkpoints. The interviewer exasperatedly explained (again) that the device has no working parts and has been proven not to work in any way; the people who made and sold it went to prison for fraud some time ago. The first defence of the Iraqi guy was that the ADE-651 is all they have. I guess at least going through the motions makes them feel like they’re trying.

    But it put me in mind of cycle helmets, etc. the Iraqi situation is tragic, and the cycling situation is tragic. Basically these measures are superstitious talismans to make us feel better. Of course with cycling there is something better we could and should (collectively) be doing to make a difference, and those with power and responsibility should know better.

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