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Astonishment at claim made to Transport Select Committee, as Jon Snow calls on government to give lead on cycle safety

Road Safety Minister Mike Penning yesterday astonished and angered cycle campaigners by claiming before the House of Commons Transport Select Committee that Britain's roads are safer for cyclists than those in the Netherlands. Earlier, broadcaster and CTC President Jon Snow yesterday had urged the government to provide leadership on cycle safety as he gave evidence to the committee, but both Mr Penning and Minister for Cycling Norman Baker insisted that it is making progress on the issue.

Mr Penning’s claim was based on deaths per 100,000 population, a measure that takes no account of the huge differences between the numbers of cyclists and levels of cycling in the UK and those in the Netherlands; according to an analysis of the relevant figures on the RadWagon blog, which used the standard measure of deaths per kilometre per 100 million cyclists, people here are nearly three times more likely to be killed while riding a bike than their counterparts across the North Sea.

Afterwards, Roger Geffen, Campaigns and Policy Director at national cyclists’ organisation CTC, told BikeBiz: "It is absurd for the Road Safety Minister to claim that cycling in Britain is safer than the Netherlands. More people cycle in the Netherlands. Per mile cycled the risk of a cycle fatality in Britain is more than twice as high.

He added that the minister “should be taking action to encourage more people to cycle and to improve safety for cyclists, not using misleading statistics to pretend that the problem doesn't exist." 

It’s not clear why Mr Penning chose to highlight deaths per 100,000 population, at least without framing those figures within the context of the different patterns of cycling in each country; it certainly does not seem unreasonable to expect that civil servants within his department helping him prepare for today’s session would be familiar with ways of comparing casualty statistics between different countries, and ensure he had the relevant figures to hand.

What is apparent, however, from today’s hearing is that there is a huge gulf between what cycle campaigners believe needs to be done to help protect cyclists, and what the government claims it is doing to ensure their safety.

At the end of the session, the general feeling among a number of cyclists who had been following proceedings and who were using Twitter to provide their reaction included disappointment and frustration that the ministers - and by extension, the government - did not appear to fully appreciate the issues involved or the suggested solutions.

In a week that on Saturday will see thousands of cyclists take to the streets of the British capital in support of the London Cycling Campaign’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign, which calls for Dutch-style infrastructure, there was also disbelief and hostility at suggestions by both Mr Penning and Mr Baker that authorities in the Netherlands should visit the UK to learn how to improve the cycle safety.

Prior to the two ministers addressing the Transport Select Committee in a session that brings to an end the oral evidence being gathered as part of its inquiry into the government’s road safety policy, MPs had heard from Times editor James Harding, whose newspaper launched the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign last February, Mr Snow, and author, long distance cyclist and cycle campaigner, Josie Dew.

The full session is available to watch online here, while short extracts of some of the evidence provided by Mr Harding and Mr Snow appear below.

Afterwards, in a statement released through CTC, Mr Snow said: “There is no leadership from central government on cycling. Leadership means joined up government with all departments working together to further cycling. There needs to be much more funding for cycling – perhaps £300 million a year from central government, a diminutive sum of money even in an age of austerity. ”

Ms Dew maintained: “I have ridden five hundred thousand miles in fifty countries and in my experience driver behaviour is getting worse. Drivers should have to ride a bicycle before they get behind the wheel – the best way would be to have cycling as part of the driving test.”

The presence of Mr Harding at today’s session reflects the way in which cycle safety has been pushed up the national political agenda as a direct result of his newspaper’s Cities Fit For Cycling campaign, launched after one of its reporters, Mary Bowers, was left in a coma after being struck by a lorry in November.

After today’s hearing, Mr Harding commented: “It has been amazing to us how people have responded to our campaign. Cycling is one area where people are now looking to politics and politicians for answers.”
 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.