Heresy on the roads

Malcolm Wardlaw is out to shatter a few myths about the safety of British roads

Published in Cycling Plus, September 2001

Over the last three years I have studied everything I can lay my hands on regarding road safety. This private education has convinced me that much of the debate on cycling - both official and popular - is based on false perceptions and assumptions. The future prospects for cycling in this country are being harmed. I have tried to correct this with a paper published in the British Medical Journal (see, volume 321 page 1582).

I hope to dispel some myths about road safety. Let us start with the belief that motor vehicles are the cause of road deaths. False. Back in the 1870s, long before there were motor vehicles, about 1600 people were killed annually on the roads of England and Wales. That corresponds to about 2,300 deaths per year today, accounting for the increase in population. In fact, there are 3,000* deaths per year currently in England and Wales. The introduction of cars after 1900 did not increase the numbers being killed. Road deaths only increased after war came in 1914, kept on rising during the difficult inter-war years and peaked at 9,200 deaths in 1941. The highest peacetime toll was 8,000 deaths in 1966, since when there has been steady decline.

Road deaths are not related to increasing traffic levels. The number is controlled by the general tolerance for risk in society - something that the World Wars and the Cold War greatly disrupted. Britain has always been a risk averse society. In the early 1970s, there were 16,000 road deaths per year in France, a country with a slightly smaller population than Britain.

So do heaving streets and cars speeding on country roads matter? Yes, because the danger created restricts choice. Children have nearly disappeared from the road environment because of the perceived danger of motor traffic. Danger reduces freedom, but it does not appear to increase the numbers being killed. Those who believe that emptier roads and lower speeds would save lives are probably misguided, but they are right to pursue an agenda to reduce danger because less danger would increase freedom to walk and cycle, and it would make our lives as cyclists less hectic.

Another common belief is that cycling in this country is far more dangerous than in the Netherlands or France. False. The average hourly risk of death when cycling here is about 2.5 times higher than it is in those countries, but that does not mean the same individual is 2.5 times more likely to be killed here than on the continent. Cycling in this country is principally the activity of children and adolescents. Half of all cycle trips are by males younger than thirty. This concentration of accident prone groups biases the casualty figures in this country. On the continent, there is far more cycling by sensible, street wise adults. That dilutes out the youth bias and lowers the average casualty rate.

The same comments hold when comparing the risks of driving and cycling in Britain. Study has shown that for the 17-20 age group, the risk per hour is similar whether driving or cycling, and when cycling this age group is far less of a danger to others.

So should we bother campaigning to improve our lot? Yes, we should, but we need to be clear about our grievances. We are treated with official disdain. We do not obtain justice from the legal system. The media do not understand cycling and make no attempt to present our case fairly. If officialdom condescends to provide us facilities, inevitably the quality is a disgrace and we lose priority relative to motor traffic. The government refuses to honour its commitment to the National Cycling Strategy of 1996.

Getting more cyclists on the roads would give us a clout from strength in numbers that we currently lack. Our life would be much less hectic and individuals could see reductions in risk too, but it is important to realise that the risk you run is a function of your own behaviour, not government policy. Less dangerous roads would give us all more choice in where and when to cycle. That is well worth having.

Finally, it would be nice to seen an end to driver-hatred. Motorists in this country are far politer to cyclists than they are to each other. That's not to say there is no boorishness, it happens, but less often than when driving. If you feel you are taking a lot of crap, maybe it's because you're waiting for it. Try looking out for the good drivers. And if you must jump red lights and ride unlit at night, don't whine if the police pull you up for it - it serves you bloody well right. It hardly surprises me that cyclists are so widely despised in this country, when in their road behaviour they are so often contemptuous of the law and yet so quick to wave two fingers at others.

There will be no cycling renaissance in this country until we cyclists collectively make the bike look a safe, appealing, non-crankish alternative to the car. Bear that in mind next time you dress up to swing a leg over.

* These figures are for all deaths on the road: motorists, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists. Fatalities are made up approximately of 50% car occupants, 15% motorcyclists, 27% pedestrians, 5% cyclists and 3% others.

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