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Number of cycling fatalities drops 10 per cent to 104 but rates of serious injury are up

It’s not easy to look positively on a figure of 2,222 mostly sudden, violent deaths in Britain in a single year. But that bald statistic for the number of fatalities on British roads in 2009, contained within theDepartment for Transport's just-released Reported Road Casualties Great Britain 2009, represents an all-time low since such statistics were first compiled.

However, together with the 222,146 people injured on the roads in the same year, 24,690 of whom were seriously injured, the numbers still look like the level of carnage you might expect to see in a war zone. (Indeed during the same period in Afghanistan 2412 civilians were killed according to UN figures and 108 UK soldiers lost their lives.)

On average just over six people per day died on Britain's roads in the best year for reported casualties on record. And while there are grounds for optimism in the 2009 reported casualty figures, not least for cyclists, there are also good reasons to treat them with a degree of caution. Road traffic accidents are known to follow economic cycles and their decline in the past two years can in part be attributed to less traffic on the roads due to the recession although the DfT report does make clear that in the author's opinion this cannot be taken to be the whole reason..

The report shows that despite the increased popularity of cycling over the past 15 years, cyclist fatalities continue to fall. The figure of 104 cyclist deaths last year is a 10% drop on the previous year and a 44% drop on the average for the period from 1994–98 compared with a 22% increase in the number of miles cycled annually since that period – in 2009 the number of miles cycled went up 4 per cent on 2008 levels. These statistics tend to support the theory that the greater the number of cyclists in a community, the safer cycling becomes for all, although worryingly the figure for cycling casualties per billion miles travelled rose by 1 per cent in 2009.. 

In total there were 17,064 reported cycling casualties last year, the majority were slightly injured, but as well as the 104 killed another 2606 were seriously injured a six per cent rise on the 2008 figure. More than 80% of cyclists killed or seriously injured (KSI) last year were male, compared with around 60% of pedestrians and car occupants and 90% of motorcyclists. The headline results from the report relating to cycling are:

• 81% of reported cycle casualties were male, as were 80% of cycle fatalities.
• 58 % of all pedal cycle casualties were 16 – 59 year old male cyclists, compared to 47% for cycle fatalities.
• 20% of cycle casualties were children (0-15 years old). However, only 13% of  cycle fatalities were children.
• The number of reported child cycle casualties has fallen by 59% from the 1994-98 average, from 7,851 to 3,204 in 2009. The number of female child casualties has fallen more than for male casualties (65% compared to a 58% reduction).

While the latter statistics appear encouraging, they could also suggest that children do not cycle anything like as much as they used to. As for the timing of cycling accidents the report finds that 61% of casualties occurred during the hours of 7am – 10am and 4pm – 7pm. This proportion was slightly higher for accidents on Monday to Thursday (66%t) and lower at the weekend (44% on both Saturday and Sunday), and is likely to be related to school and work travel.

25 cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders were killed by drivers passing too close to them and a further 310 were seriously injured figures which may lead to renewed calls for the introduction of a minimum passing distance along the lines of those in force in other European countries.

In terms of the factors which cause road traffic accidents, the report states that four of the five most frequently reported contributory factors were some kind of driver/rider error or reaction, which includes ‘failed to look properly’ and ‘failed to judge other person’s path or speed’. Indeed ‘failed to look properly’ (commonly known as SMIDSY - Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You - amongst cyclists) was the most frequently reported contributory factor and was involved in 38% of all reported accidents and 24 per cent of fatal accidents.

Speed was the other big contributor to death on the roads - while exceeding the speed limit was cited as a contributory factor in only five per cent of reported accidents it was a contributory factor in 17 per cent of fatal ones. The report also points out that exceeding the speed limit and driving too fast for the road conditions between them were cited as contributory factors in 30 per cent of all fatal accidents. Loss of control of which excessive speed could also be deemed a component was a factor in a further 36 per cent of fatal accidents.

The DfT report also includes a valuation of the cost to the British economy of all the death, misery and destruction that occurred on Britain's roads in 2009. That figure is £15.82bn the cost of quite a big war, by comparison the financial cost to Britain of fighting in Afghanistan from 2001 until now is put at £10bn.