Is cycling in Great Britain getting safer? We crunch the numbers

We make some very rough and ready calculations based on yesterday's casualty and road traffic stats from the DfT

by Simon_MacMichael   June 29, 2012  

Broken bike (CC licensed image by garryknight, www.flickr.com)

Whenever cyclist casualty statistics are published, the question always arises of whether cycling is becoming safer or more dangerous. Changes in the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured cannot answer that - the statistics need to be framed in the context of any changes in cycling patterns. As well as publishing the Reported Road Casualties Great Britain for 2011 yesterday, the Department for Transport also published Road Traffic Estimates for the same year, enabling us to perform some very rough calculations to try and get an idea of what is happening.

We have to stress that the calculations, while not quite back-of-a-fag-packet, are very rough. We're not statisticians. Moreover, there are potential pitfalls in the DfT data regarding billion vehicle miles for bicycles: first, they're rounded to the nearest 100 million. So 3.1 billion could be 3.149 billion, or it could be 3.050 billion - big difference; secondly, data for levels of cycling are by their nature notoriously difficult to capture accurately, perhaps more so than for any other form of transport. This methodology note from the DfT isn't specific to pedal cycles, but it explains how the data are collected.

Another thing that needs to be pointed out is that while analysing the data in this way might give a very rough idea of what may be happening at national level, there is no way that it can represent what is happening at local level because there are too many variables in play - levels of cycling can vary wildly between different towns and cities even within the same county, or, in London, between neighbouring boroughs; traffic patterns, and drivers' attitudes towards or awareness of cyclists, can also differ, as can emergency response times and access to a hospital with a major trauma unit, for instance.

Following on from those comments about differences in levels of cycling by location is the fact that with the data being at national level, we simply cannot make any assumptions about the supposed 'Safety in Numbers' effect that increased numbers of cyclists are said to bring about. Clearly, some towns and cities have seen huge increases in cycling in recent years, others haven't. Any increases in cycling suggested by the road traffic estimates aren't going to be happening at a uniform rate across Great Britain, nor are any increases or decreases in casualty numbers.  

So with those caveats, here is our very rough overview of how the casualty figures and road traffic estimates anounced today relate to each other as far as bicycles are concerned.

Cyclists reported killed

                              bn miles              Rate per bn miles
                               cycled      Killed       cycled

2005-09 average                  2.8         130          46.4
2007                             2.6         136          52.3
2008                             2.8         115          41.1
2009                             3.0         104          34.7
2010                             3.0         111          37.0
2011                             3.1         107          34.5

2011 % change on 2005-09 avge   10.7       -17.7         -25.7
2011 % change on 2010            3.3        -3.6          -6.7

On this measure, cycling certainly looks like it is getting safer; the number of cyclists killed per billion miles cycled last year is a quarter down on the 2005-09 average, and there has also been a near 7 per cent drop on 2010.

Cyclists reported seriously injured  
  
                              bn miles   Seriously  Rate per bn miles
                               cycled     injured       cycled

2005-09 average                  2.8       2,398         856.4
2007                             2.6       2,428         933.8
2008                             2.8       2,450         875.0
2009                             3.0       2,606         868.7
2010                             3.0       2,606         868.7
2011                             3.1       3,085         995.2
  
2011 % change on 2005-09 avge   10.7        28.6          16.2
2011 % change on 2010            3.3        18.4          14.6  

Data here depict a very different picture. The increase in billions of kilometres ridden means that the percentage increases after taking that into account aren't as steep as they are based purely on the casualty numbers - but we are still looking at double-digit increases both from the 2004-09 average and, more worryingly still, from 2010 to last year. Also, while there can be swings from year to year in deaths due to the relatively low numbers involved, that's less likely in this instance, given the thousands of recorded incidents.

Cyclists reported killed or seriously injured  

                             bn miles               Rate per bn miles
                              cycled        KSI         cycled

2005-09 average                 2.8        2,528         902.9
2007                            2.6        2,564         986.2
2008                            2.8        2,565         916.1
2009                            3.0        2,710         903.3
2010                            3.0        2,717         905.7
2011                            3.1        3,192       1,029.7

2011 % change on 2005-09 avge  10.7         26.3          14.0
2011 % change on 2010           3.3         17.5          13.7

The average from 2005-09 was five cyclists killed for every 100 killed or seriously injured (KSI); in 2011, it is a little over three, which represents progress. But while the figures do suggest that a serious incident is slightly less likely now to result in the death of the cyclist, the fact remains that such incidents appear to be increasing at an alarming rate, up 14 per cent over the 2004-09 average, ad 13.7 per cent against 2010 once billions of kilometres cycled are factored in.

Cyclists reported slightly injured  

                             bn miles    Slightly   Rate per bn miles
                              cycled      injured       cycled

2005-09 average                 2.8       13,934       4,976.4
2007                            2.6       13,631       5,242.7
2008                            2.8       13,732       4,904.3
2009                            3.0       14,354       4,784.7
2010                            3.0       14,414       4,804.7
2011                            3.1       16,023       5,168.7

2011 % change on 2005-09 avge  10.7         15.0           3.9
2011 % change on 2010 3.3                   11.2           7.6

As with the fatality and serious injury data, only injuries that are actually reported to the police are recorded in the statistics (the definition is here) so if for instance you come off your bike, suffer some road rash and perhaps a sprain but visit your GP following an incident in which the police weren't involved, and it's unlikely to be recorded. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to say that many more incidents involving cyclists suffering slight injury go unreported compared to those with car occupants, not least because of legal requirements to report incidents involving motor vehicles.

All cyclist casualties

                            bn miles                 Rate per bn miles
                             cycled         All         cycled
 
2005-09 average                2.8        16,463       5,879.6
2007                           2.6        16,195       6,228.8
2008                           2.8        16,297       5,820.4
2009                           3.0        17,064       5,688.0
2010                           3.0        17,185       5,728.3
2011                           3.1        19,215       6,198.4

2011 % change on 2005-09 avge 10.7          16.7           5.4
2011 % change on 2010          3.3          11.8           8.2

So here's the final set of figures, based on all cyclist casulaties - deaths, serious injuries, and slight injuries. The CTC claims that the rise this year is due to the current government failing to make road safety a sufficiently high priority. Granted our calculations are very rough and ready, but a more than 8 per cent rise in the rate of casualties per billion kilometres cycled between 2010, the year the coalition was formed, and 2011 suggests they have a point.

16 user comments

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Can you re-format the tables in this article - the ads on the right hand side are overlapping the columns of numbers.

NorthernRouleur

posted by NorthernRouleur [26 posts]
29th June 2012 - 7:21

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"But while the figures do suggest that a serious incident is slightly less likely now to result in the death of the cyclist, the fact remains that such incidents appear to be increasing at an alarming rate, up 14 per cent over the 2004-09 average,."

So it's the level of medical care that is saving lives - rather than anything motorists or cyclists are doing to improve the KSI figures.

It's a shame that the rise in KSI rates is in tandem with the rise in numbers cycling. I imagine onc cycling reaches critical mass it gets safer. Interesting to compare again with Holland and Denmark. Not at a national level but comparing two similar sized cities such as, off the top of my head, Cambridge and Copehhagen.

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [1031 posts]
29th June 2012 - 9:37

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I wonder if some of the increase can be attributed to greater numbers of inexperienced cyclists? It's almost impossible to measure accurately but my experience says that the roads have not got any worse however the average standard of cycling has dropped.

Don't take this as an endorsement for more training - I think we are already doing enough on that front - more an indication of the unreasonably high level of skill and experience required to ride safely on our roads.

posted by Mr Will [88 posts]
29th June 2012 - 9:41

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I don't really buy the "safety in numbers" argument. I suppose you could say on anecdotal evidence that more cyclists will mean greater awareness of cyclists and lower likleihood of them not being noticed by drivers, but the statistics don't prove that one way or another.

Strikes me that CTC was grasping at straws in arguing safety in numbers, due to their well known antipathy to real engineering interventions, presumably out of fear that their main membership of keen-as-mustard cycle tourers, time triallists and sportivers would be told they can't use the roads anymore.

Occasionally you see references to critical mass (there is at least one above) and I wonder whether safety in numbers is a forlorn attempt to make the CM theory apply to an evolutionary situation.

The CM theory is that cycle safety improves once you reach critical mass. That is a cliff-edge proposition - things continue much as before until a certain point at which a radical change occurs - and it doesn't explain how you persuade people to get out there in increasing numbers before the cliff-edge is reached.

Critical mass is however a theory provable in practice, not just in what happens when the ride goes out every last Friday. You probably have to be middle-aged to remember this, but there was a time when the hordes of workers exiting a factory or shipyard on their bikes formed a veritable tsunami, which no motor vehicle could withstand. This used to be a common site outside the naval dockyards at Portsmouth and Devonport, places where car parking had historically not been provided (Nelson had never seen a car, remember), residential areas around about were densely built and car use was simply not practical. The last time I personally saw anything like this was 22 December 1988, a date you cannot forget as it was the day after Lockerbie, at the Vickers trident submarine construction yard at Barrow in Furness.

posted by Paul M [306 posts]
29th June 2012 - 10:42

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I do think there is a case for some sort of 'group leader' training. Many clubs are fine, but some look like they are trying to herd wasps with a machine gun. When there are novices spread across the road tootling along, I start to sympathise with irate drivers.

If I could have, say, 6 bikes, would it stop me drooling over others that I don't have?

posted by notfastenough [2942 posts]
29th June 2012 - 10:49

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That slightly injured list might as well be retitled the frames damaged in minor incidents list.

posted by Nick T [759 posts]
29th June 2012 - 12:35

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I think, as mentioned, it's very hard to infer anything from the data. It does suggest that the rate of injuries has gone up but there are three likely causes for this:

1: the percentage of injuries being reported has gone up
2: the number of miles cycled in 2011 was an underestimate
3: the rate of injuries has actually gone up

It’s probably a combination of all three but I would suggest that 1 is the most likely, followed by 2 and then 3.

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posted by thegibdog [72 posts]
29th June 2012 - 12:44

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You may be right about greater numbers of inexperienced cyclists, but I would question that the roads have not got any worse, as it were.

Personally, I think that standards of drving have dropped considerably over the last 10 years or so, maybe due to the increased levels of traffic. I am sure that I experience many more close passes and simple careless driving than I used to. All anecdotal of course, but the belief is there nonetheless.

posted by don_don [149 posts]
29th June 2012 - 13:12

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Would be interesting to know how blurred the line is between a serious and minor injury, and whether there's been much change in how they are classified during the period covered by these stats.
Just one more factor that makes these figured inconclusive, I suppose.

Chris's picture

posted by Chris [103 posts]
29th June 2012 - 13:42

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most distressing is that this hasn't exactly grabbed headlines - it seems to have been largely overlooked by the media.

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posted by TheHatter [810 posts]
29th June 2012 - 20:32

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Media is only interested in " Sensationalism and it's Advertising Revenue " so the Motoring Lobby tell it to ignore " Cycling Bad News Issues " and guess what ?
IT DOES !
UNTIL road engineers get back on a bike on a daily basis they will continue to ignore what strikes cyclists in the face each day . Doubt that whilst they sit in traffic , their minds are even ticking over , let alone thinking about how to solve the problems causing their delay ?
Cyclists need to WEEKLY put their bike on the roof of their car and create the chaos , that is needed to remind the " commutter " of the benefits of helping the Cyclists to get the Infrastructure that is needed to ensure " Safety on the Roads "!
UNTIL the Motoring Bodies support " Cycling Infrastructure " Politicians will Voice support and sit on their hands ! They want to be re elected by the Majority not by the minority of Cyclists !

Skippy(advocate for "Disabled / Para Sport")@skippydetour. blogging as skippi-cyclist.blogspot & Parrabuddy.blogspot currently on the road with ProTour Grand Tour Events .

skippy's picture

posted by skippy [378 posts]
30th June 2012 - 7:17

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Two points.

Firstly, the latest data are not just bad news for cycle safety - they are bad news for road safety in general. 2011 saw the first increase in ovreall road fatalities since 2003, and the first rise in serious injuries since 1994.

It is difficult to prove, but my strong hunch is that the Government's earlier rhetoric about "ending the war on the motorist" has a lot to do with this - see http://beta.ctc.org.uk/press-release/2012-06-28/serious-injuries-to-cycl...

Secondly, to respond to Paul M. There is a myth doing the rounds among some bloggers that CTC's 'safety in numbers' campaign (www.ctc.org.uk/safetyinnumbers) was developed in opposition to their own campaigns for segregated infrastructure. There is not a fraction of a nanogram of truth in this - it is a pure bloggers' myth. The argument that cycling gets safer "purely" by increasing numbers, therefore you don't need segregation, would be a stupid argument - and at no point did we EVER make it. It is very boring to have to keep responding to critisism for something we never said.

Roger Geffen
CTC, the national cycling charity

posted by Roger Geffen [32 posts]
1st July 2012 - 22:07

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I am puzzled why the DoT continues to publish STATS19 data without presenting hospital admission data alongside it. Neither are perfect data sets: both have strengts and weaknesses and are best viewed together. Below are stats for ENGLAND.

2010-11 cycling injuries resulting in emergency admission to hospital bed: Non-collision 11,131, Collision 3,606 Other 1,305

Hospital Episode Statistics

The NHS Information Centre, Hospital Episode Statistics for England. Inpatient statistics. Activity in English NHS Hospitals and English NHS commissioned activity in the independent sector. Please see HESonline [http://www.hesonline.nhs.uk] for more information on data quality.

(These are numbers of people (all ages) admitted to a hospital bed in an emergency following a travel or transport related incident. The numbers exclude people treated as outpatients in emergency departments. Emergency department attendances is included in the polices definition of a serious injury).

2008-09 2009-10 2010-11 2008-11
Pedestrian 8601 8684 8956 +4.1
Pedal cyclist 13668 15592 16042 +17.3
Motorcyclist 9830 10112 9503 -3.4
3-wheeled 297 380 346 +16.4
Car occupants 15888 16289 15152 -4.7
Occupants of heavy transport vehicles, pick up trucks and buses 2568 2655 2638 +2.7
Other (inc. animal riders, unknown and unspecified) 6769 6897 6788 n/c
Water craft 428 546 531 +24.0
Aircraft 208 244 272 +30.7

Injury Prevention Manager
NHS Bristol

posted by Rob Benington [16 posts]
2nd July 2012 - 10:21

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A couple years on... quoting from The London Evening Standard, 6 February 2014 in article titled "London hospital that saved 668 cyclists: 'Do more to prevent crashes'":

More than 660 critically injured cyclists have been saved by London’s main trauma hospital over the last decade, new research shows.

The Royal London’s full trauma team has been activated for riders 708 times since 2004, with 668 people surviving their injuries, including all five taken there last month.

But experts believe the success at keeping the death toll relatively low — 40 cyclists have died at the hospital in 10 years — is masking a lack of focus on preventing collisions.

AndrewRH's picture

posted by AndrewRH [44 posts]
20th April 2014 - 19:32

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The fatality figures for 2012 and 2013 show a continued drop in road deaths for the UK. The CTC needs to do some more number crunching with more up to date data.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2132 posts]
20th April 2014 - 20:59

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OldRidgeback wrote:
The fatality figures for 2012 and 2013 show a continued drop in road deaths for the UK. The CTC needs to do some more number crunching with more up to date data.

Are these the same numbers that show rising cyclist casualty numbers?

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/27/uk-road-deaths

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posted by mrmo [1026 posts]
20th April 2014 - 22:06

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