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Cyclist deaths double during lockdown – at twice the average for the time of year

Short -term anomaly or longer-term trend due to changes in our lives, travel habits and more speeding drivers on the roads? It's too soon to say, but worth reflecting upon...

Cyclist fatalities since the UK lockdown began on 23 March are running at more than double the average for the time of year, road.cc can reveal, with 14 cyclists in Great Britain and one in Northern Ireland losing their lives in road traffic incidents.

> 15 cyclists killed on UK roads in first month of lockdown - here's what we know so far

While we would, as ever, caution against interpreting a sudden spike in casualties as reflective of a long-term trend, it is worth reflecting on some aspects of these unprecedented times that may have an influence.

According to Department for Transport (DfT) statistics, in the months of March and April from 2015 to 2018, there were 49 recorded deaths of cyclists in Great Britain – equivalent to a monthly average of 6.125 – less than half the total found by road.cc's analysis of news reports in the past month.

The fewest fatalities in those months during that period were recorded in March 2016, and in March and April 2017, each of which saw four cyclists die on Great Britain’s roads. The most came in March 2015, when nine were killed.

So, what might explain this sudden increase?

Well, it could be a short-term statistical blip, something we have certainly seen in the past.

But it could also be the result of one or more factors coming together as a result of how life here has changed in the past few weeks in a way that none of us would have thought possible at the start of the year.

First, while two of the fatalities we have seen reported since 23 March do not appear to have involved anyone other than the cyclist, all the others resulted from collisions involving motor vehicles.

Given that the roads are much quieter than usual, with traffic reverting to levels not seen since the 1950s, the spike in cyclist deaths does seem counter-intuitive.

However, a number of road traffic policing units across the country have highlighted issues such as an increase in speeding as some motorists take the opportunity of empty roads to ignore speed limits, as well as suggestions that drivers more likely to pose a risk to others are still out there while more law-abiding motorists remain at home.

In other words, there might be fewer drivers out there, but there is now a greater proportion of the ones who cause the most harm.

> East London council to block cars to protect cyclists and pedestrians from speeding drivers during pandemic

Turning to changes in cycling habits, under The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, which we analyse here, reasonable excuses for a person to leave their home include to undertake exercise either alone or with other members of their household, or to travel to work when that cannot be done from home.

Evidence from the cycling industry is that sales of bicycles are booming, whether to people to undertake their daily exercise, or to travel to work while avoiding public transport.

And in both cases, the run of good weather we have had from late March onwards won’t have discouraged people from taking to two wheels in the same way that a couple of weeks of low temperatures, wind and rain would.

All other things being equal, more cyclists on the roads collectively riding a greater distance would be expected to lead to more casualties, fatal or otherwise.

But that then needs to be balanced against other significant changes that have happened in the riding habits of regular cyclists in recent weeks.

One of those is that many people who would normally commute by bike are working from home. Collectively, that’s likely to lead to a big fall in aggregate miles ridden – although of course, many may be getting out on their bike for daily exercise to replace that which they were getting while travelling to work.

But we’ve also seen big growth in cycling indoors, for example on smart trainers using platforms such as Zwift which by their nature attract many riding for sport or fitness, and who are putting at least some of their miles in at home, rather than out on the road.

That, coupled with events such as audax rides and sportives being cancelled, is also likely to have led to a drop in the aggregate miles being racked up across the country, we suspect (we’re nowhere near the peak season for the latter, of course, but events being postponed or scrapped will have removed an incentive for many to train).​

As we said earlier, it’s a complex situation, one that could be nothing more than a statistical anomaly, or that could be the start of a trend that could be due to the huge upheavals in the way we live and travel. It’s far too early to tell which, but it should not be ignored.

Across the country, campaigners have been urging governments and local authorities to reallocate road space to cyclists and pedestrians to create safe environments for travel and exercise, and there are signs that is beginning to happen, albeit very slowly.

Cycling UK is urging people to write to their local councils to call for more space for cyclists during the lockdown – you can write to your council via their website by following this link.

The charity’s head of campaigns, Duncan Dollimore, told road.cc: “Over the past weeks one of the few positives has been seeing families and individuals discovering the joys of riding or walking on largely empty rural lanes and roads.

“However, Cycling UK is receiving regular reports of a minority of people driving way too fast. While reports of collisions are few, with so many families venturing out for their daily exercise especially on narrow rural roads, the consequences of dangerous driving now more than ever is a burden our NHS can ill afford.

“Worse still are the casualties we hear about. Without official figures it’s too early to say whether this is more than the usual. But even if it is less than ‘usual’, any death on our roads involving collisions with other vehicles is one too many.

“Quieter roads are not a licence to speed,” he added. “Cycling UK is appealing to all drivers to give plenty of space when overtaking walkers, cyclists and horse riders and slow down - you never know who could be just around the corner.”

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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