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ASA Withdraw Ruling on Cycling Scotland Advertisement

04/02/2014 10:39 | Updated 06 April 2014

Following an attack by cycling groups, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) announced that they have withdrawn their decision to ban a television advert (pictured below) which was part of Cycling Scotland's Nice Way Code campaign. However, the authority stressed the advert could still not be broadcast in its current form, and it may not be the victory that many cyclists had hoped for.

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The ASA gave two reasons when initially deciding to ban the footage; there is a cyclist shown proceeding down the middle of her lane and she is also riding without a helmet. The first criticism falls apart with very little scrutiny. Cycling Scotland referred the ASA to Cyclecraft (required reading for accredited cycle instructors) which identifies riding in the centre of the active traffic lane as the default position for cyclists to adopt on urban roads.

The ASA initially commented that 'the cyclist appeared to be located more in the centre of the lane when the car behind overtook them and the car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic'. If they had consulted rule 163 of the Highway Code they would have seen a car doing exactly that. It is this element which led the chief executive of the ASA to say that there was a potential flaw in their ruling, which will now be subject to an independent review.

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The other element in the ASA's decision to ban the advert was for showing the cyclist riding without a helmet. Cycling Scotland made a number of sensible arguments to the ASA when defending the footage. In particular, they pointed out that there is no legal compulsion for a cyclist to wear a helmet. However, the ASA referenced rule 59 of the Highway Code which encourages cyclists to wear a helmet and said that the advertisement undermined these recommendations. As a result, the ASA concluded that the advertisement was 'socially irresponsible and likely to condone or encourage behaviour prejudicial to health and safety.' This is a dangerous message to send.

The Scottish criminal appeal court recently ruled on the case of Audrey Fyfe, who was killed whilst cycling. The case was heard in the first instance by Sheriff Scott, who found that the failure to wear a helmet contributed to her death. The appeal court overturned this finding and acknowledged 'there is a degree of controversy as to the efficacy of cycle helmets.' They also stated that Sheriff Scott's view that a cycle helmet is likely to be effective in preventing a serious or fatal head injury was based 'not on evidence but on speculation.'

This point of view was shared by Dr Ben Goldacre, who wrote an editorial entitled Bicycle Helmets and the Law for the British Medical Journal regarding the 'complex contradictory mess of evidence on the impact of bicycle helmets'. This should be required reading for those who have a hand in the official guidance or legislation regarding cycle helmets as there are numerous issue to grapple with.

It is not right that the ASA should determine how cycling is portrayed based purely on the recommendations of the Highway Code. As has been pointed out elsewhere, people shown walking the streets at night should be wearing reflective clothing if they are to comply with rule 3. The ASA would not countenance banning all such advertisements, so why single out the footage showing a cyclist without a helmet as socially irresponsible?

The initial finding of the ASA is symptomatic of a wider held attitude that cyclists should be treated differently from other road users. It is clearly a good thing that there will be a review of the ASA's decision to uphold the complaints but further debate is likely to be sparked once the independent review has been concluded.