BBC crunches stats to try and establish whether urban or rural roads are more dangerous

Website article compares Greater London vs Northumberland... answer depends on variables introduced

by Simon_MacMichael   January 22, 2012  

London:cyclist in traffic (copyright Simon MacMichael).jpg

An article on the BBC website has sought to determine whether city roads choked with traffic are more dangerous than those in the country. The article, by Michael Blastland in the BBC’s Go Figure series, employs statistics to try and find an answer to the question, using the roads of London and Northumberland to as examples of each type of location.

The latter is England’s most sparsely populated county, with an estimated average of 62 people per square kilometre, compared to 4,932 in London.

As the BBC says, one problem in trying to establish a definitive answer is that police forces do not collect specific data on how much traffic there was in the reports they compile on specific incidents.

Another is that some roads with few or no casualties on them may appear safe, but the figures may be misleading if, for example, they are avoided by vulnerable users such as cyclists and pedestrians, a theory outlined by John Adams in his 1995 book, Risk.

In absolute terms, there were 19 times more people killed or seriously injured (KSI) on Greater London’s roads in 2011 than there were in Northumberland; factor in billion miles driven, however, to arrive at a casualty rate, and that gap narrows dramatically, with the capital still ahead, but only by a factor of around one and a half.

But take into account time spent actually at the wheel, and Greater London’s lower average speeds see the casualty rate in Northumberland in 2010 run at getting on for one and a half times higher than that in Greater London.

Other variables – the class of road, type of road user, and the difference in official mortality rates from land traffic accidents – serve to cloud the picture too, although the suggestion remains that the effect of heavy, slow-moving traffic causes casualty rates to be lower than those in areas with lightly trafficked roads, with speed also likely to affect the severity of an incident.

As the BBC acknowledges, the comparison between the statistics is a “rough and ready” one, and Greater London and Northumberland were chosen arbitrarily as the areas to be examined.

What the article does show, however, is the effect of a variety of variables in trying to resolve the issue, plus the difficulty of ever managing to reach a decisive conclusion.

Moreover, as many of the people commenting on the article point out, it’s not necessarily roads themselves that are inherently dangerous – often, it’s the people using them.


6 user comments

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I have had two accidents on roads that have incapacitated me, both on rural roads. It may reflect most of my miles are done on these sort of roads. In both cased slid, or lost control on ice. Currently nursing bruised ribs from latest escapade. In terms of cars - still think its rural, too fast and unaware that there might be bicyclists.


robbieC's picture

posted by robbieC [62 posts]
22nd January 2012 - 14:45


Interesting to note the article mentions that the terrible accident rate on the A1 may have skewed the figures. In places its nasty mix of dual and single carriageway with crossing farm traffic and some poorly designed slip roads that have been the site of several recent accidents.

Some fantastic cycling country though, on and off road. I know where I'd rather take my chances.

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [1112 posts]
22nd January 2012 - 20:51


Another pointless waste of money. Lets see, I'm unhappy commuting in London , so I'll ride in Northumberland. Hmmmm

posted by mattsccm [316 posts]
22nd January 2012 - 21:22


did you actually read the article mattsccm? It's not a government study or officially commissioned survey, it's more about how statistics can be analysed than the subject matter.

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [1112 posts]
22nd January 2012 - 21:53


You'd have to decide if you want to measure accidents per hour travelled or accidents per mile travelled. I'm not sure which would be the better measure, but guess each would give a different result.

posted by Niall [38 posts]
23rd January 2012 - 10:49


There's not a lot of difference in my case.

posted by FMOAB [262 posts]
24th January 2012 - 22:44