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Monday moaning: 'Cyclists are always breaking the law and are a menace on the roads'

Cyclists are often accused of causing havoc on the road and being a threat to safety – but the stats tell another story

Cyclists stand accused of putting themselves and others in danger on Britain's roads by constantly breaking the law. Certain newspapers seem obsessed with cyclists supposedly terrorising the streets and you see comments on social media all the time condemning the behaviour of 'Lycra louts'.  

We reported on road.cc a couple of weeks ago that Talksport presenter Andy Goldstein had stated on air that 95% of cyclists jump red lights (among other gripes about cyclists). This kind of claim is common, but what's the truth?

London cyclists at traffic lights (copyright Britishcycling.org_.uk).jpg

Comments on social media frequently cite the fact that many cyclists don't wear helmets or bright clothing as evidence that we're all criminals. You'll know that this is nonsense. The Highway Code advises cyclists to wear a helmet and light-coloured clothing in daylight, and reflective clothing and/or accessories in the dark but, of course, these aren't legal requirements.

You'll also see comments complaining that cyclists are flouting the rules by wearing earphones, riding two abreast, positioning themselves in the middle of the lane, and not using cycle lanes. Again, you'll know that none of these things is illegal.

Cyclists at traffic lights (©Toby Jacobs)

Jumping red lights is perhaps the classic complaint about cyclists. It's an old favourite. This one at least gets off to a better start than most in that jumping red lights is against the law (some cyclists jump red lights because they feel safer moving into open space at signalised junctions rather than waiting for the following traffic to accelerate into that junction when the lights turn green – but the rights and wrongs or jumping red lights are a topic for another day). 

How many cyclists jump red lights, then?

Back in 2007 (yes, we're going back a bit here, but there's not a lot of quantitative evidence out there), Transport for London's Road Network Performance & Research Team looked at the proportion of cyclists who jumped red lights at five sites in the capital and said, "An average of 16% violated red lights, whilst the remaining 84% obeyed the traffic signals. Therefore it can be concluded that the majority of cyclists do not ride through red lights." 

More recently, in a 2013 YouGov survey 27% of London cyclists said they ignored red lights occasionally while another 8% said that they did so often. This survey relied on self-reporting and we couldn't judge its accuracy.

Many road users will tell you that the figures are higher than this. You'll sometimes hear claims of people seeing dozens – maybe hundreds – of cyclists jumping certain traffic lights every day. They might be right. How much of a safety concern is this? Let's have a look at some more stats...

 From 2007-16, no pedestrians in Britain were killed by red light jumping cyclists, while around five a year were killed by red light jumping drivers. For pedestrians hit by red light jumpers, just 7.6% of those slightly injured and 5.4% of those seriously injured involved cyclists. The other 92%-95% involved motor vehicles. 

The percentages relating to cyclists are higher in London, where the concentration of pedestrians, cyclists and traffic lights is particularly heavy: 16% of pedestrians injured or seriously injured by red light jumpers were hit by cyclists, the other 84% involved drivers/riders of motor vehicles.

Judged purely on the number of casualties, red light jumping motorists are a far greater problem than red light jumping cyclists.

If it sounds like this is turning into an 'Us versus Them' thing, bear in mind that almost everyone on the road.cc staff is a motorist as well as a cyclist, the vast majority of you road.cc readers are both, and about 90% of British Cycling members also drive. However, if cyclists are singled out for breaking the law it makes sense to examine the degree to which other road users stick to it as a means of comparison.

According to the Department for Transport's Vehicle Speed Compliance Statistics, 48% of car drivers exceeded the speed limit on motorways in 2017, 52% exceeded the speed limit on 30mph roads, and a massive 86% exceeded the speed limit on 20mph roads under free flow conditions. 

How big a problem is exceeding the speed limit? Well, more figures from the Department for Transport say that in 2017 it was reported as a contributory factor in accidents that resulted in 220 deaths, 1,493 serious injuries and 5,855 slight injuries (travelling too fast for the conditions but within the speed limit was reported as a contributory factor in many, many more injuries and deaths). A massive problem, then.

The consequences of cyclists jumping red lights are small compared with the consequences of motorists jumping red lights, and they're tiny compared with the consequences of motorists speeding. In fact, all of those usual gripes you hear about cyclists – riding on the pavement and the like – result in very few casualties

Despite that, it's cyclists who are routinely denounced as “a dangerous nuisance”, “a threat to safety" and the like on social media, and you'll encounter headlines like "Cyclists kill or maim two pedestrians every week, according to statistics" in The Express... ignoring the fact that between 2007 and 2016 motor vehicles were involved in 98.5% of collisions where a pedestrian was seriously injured and 99.4% of collisions in which a pedestrian died. The biggest threat to pedestrians certainly doesn't come from cyclists!

Mile for mile, pedestrians are more likely to be killed by a motor vehicle than by a bicycle. From 2012 to 2016 in Great Britain, for every one billion miles ridden overall, cycles were involved in 1.4 pedestrian fatalities. For every one billion miles they were driven, cars were involved in 1.9 pedestrian fatalities. 

Cyclists breaking the law can sometimes have major – occasionally tragic – consequences, but why do so many people seem convinced that the problem is bigger than it actually is? There's a huge disparity between perception and reality here.

We'd guess – and it is a guess – it's partly because jumping a red light and riding on the pavement are so much more obvious than a motorist doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Plus, some people simply seem to believe that speeding at 85mph on a motorway in a two tonne vehicle is perfectly acceptable in a way that riding a push bike at night with a light out isn't.

Research prepared for the Department for Transport also suggests that drivers can exaggerate the misbehaviour of cyclists because of a tendency to see us as an ‘out group’, and are prone to “overgeneralise from the behaviour of individual members of an ‘out group’ to the behaviour of members of the ‘out group’ as a whole.” 

We'll leave the final word to Sam Jones, Cycling UK’s senior campaigns officer.

“Sometimes it feels as though cyclists are represented in the national media as the ‘real danger’ of our roads," he said. "The reality is that we cause negligible harm, but are disproportionately at risk of suffering serious injury. While that might seem to paint a grim picture for us cyclists, it’s worth bearing in mind Britain’s roads are relatively safe, and the benefits of cycling will always far outweigh any risks.

“Just because cyclists represent a smaller risk to other road users, that doesn’t justify inconsiderate or dangerous cycling. Cycling UK would encourage everyone to cycle considerately and within the boundaries of the law.

“The main problem is the shocking injustice that victims of road traffic incidents all too often face. It’s high time the Government took this problem seriously and ended the injustice suffered by far too many families who are being let down by the system.”

Cycling UK has compiled an excellent document to counter many of the accusations most commonly fired at cyclists, by the way. Check it out here.

Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.

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