Road safety and cycling: overview
If more people cycled instead of driving, not only would the population grow healthier, breathe cleaner air and benefit from a drop in carbon emissions from transport, but the roads would be safer for everyone too.
How safe is cycling?
Risk to people who cycle
Cycling is much safer than many people think it is, and research consistently shows that the health benefits are substantial and significantly outweigh the risks.
To put the risks in perspective, over a distance equivalent to cycling 1,000 times round the globe at its widest point:
- one cyclist is killed
- about 20-30 are seriously injured
- fewer than 100 are slightly injured.
In fact, the casualty rate for cyclists - number hurt per billion miles cycled on public roads - has been trending downwards for the past decade or so (note that the pandemic suppressed motor travel in 2020):
*Figures adjusted by the DfT to take account of changes in the way the police report on road injuries.
Note: the figure above are based on traffic estimates and incidents on public roads in GB that are reported to the police and included in the Department for Transport’s casualty statistics – please see Q16 of our statistics page for more.
On top of this, while cyclists are among the most vulnerable road users (see below), there’s good evidence to suggest that the safety in numbers effect works for them. One reason for this may be that drivers encounter more cyclists, grow better accustomed to interacting with them safely and are more likely to have personal experience of cycling.
Of course, every fatality or injury on the roads is one too many.
Although Great Britain has a good overall record on road safety in terms of road user (all) deaths per billion vehicle-km compared with other countries in Europe, cyclists are still over-represented in casualty statistics.
From 2015-19 (pre-pandemic ‘normal’ years), cycling made up only about 1% of traffic and 2% of trips, but cyclists accounted for:
- 6% of road fatalities
- 14% of KSI (killed or seriously injured)
- 11% of all casualties.
(Again, these figures are based on road incidents reported to the police).
Risk to other road users
Importantly, people who cycle cause negligible harm to other road users:
- Unlike driving, most cycling (85%) happens on minor roads and streets where people are most likely to be walking. Yet road casualty statistics show that cycles are involved in just 2% of pedestrian casualties reported to and by the police. The rest, 98%, are hit by motor vehicles, the bulk of whose mileage happens on motorways or A roads. For more on this, please see our briefing on pedestrians.
- In collisions involving one car and one cycle from 2012-2021, almost 500 cyclists died, compared to four car occupants.
Also, as mentioned, more cycling makes for a safer, cleaner and more pleasant environment, so benefits everyone in that way too.
What should road safety strategies/frameworks do to protect people who cycle?
As a rule, national and local governments produce road safety strategies for a given time period, and revise them at intervals.
First and foremost, Cycling UK believes that all of them should aim for more as well as safer cycling. We think these two objectives can and should go hand-in-hand.
Vision Zero, where no death or serious injury on the roads is acceptable, is becoming an increasingly common headline target for road safety decision-makers and practitioners.
This is usually backed up by adopting ‘Safe System’ principles. The idea is to take account of human error and tolerance to injury through five pillars which, although variously defined, essentially means minimising risk through: safe speeds, safe road use, safe roads, safe vehicles, and safe post-crash care.
For cycling, this means:
Reducing traffic volume and speeds
High volumes of motor traffic, coupled with drivers going too fast, is a major barrier to promoting cycling.
Properly enforced lower speed limits helps tackle this, especially 20 mph for residential and community streets, resulting in a safer, less intimidating and more attractive environment for everyone, including cyclists.
At national level, Wales is leading the way on 20 mph limits.
Tackling irresponsible and illegal driver behaviour
At the beginning of 2022, a newly revised Highway Code (England, Scotland & Wales) introduced a ‘Hierarchy of road users’, a concept that “places those road users most at risk in the event of a collision” at the top.
The Code also revised rules on junctions, dangerous overtaking and ‘close passes’ and now gives clearer guidance on how to open a car door without putting cyclists at risk. It explains cyclists’ recommended road positioning not only to cyclists, but to drivers too.
Cycling UK called for these changes, and welcomed them. Provided they are properly publicised and promoted, they should make a positive difference to cyclists’ comfort and safety on the roads.
Driving instructors and examiners are key to this as well, while the training, testing and licensing system should strongly emphasise the need to drive carefully in the presence of vulnerable road users.
But more needs to happen. We also need: higher numbers of and better-resourced traffic police; efficient and responsive reporting systems; best practice investigating procedures; fair treatment for all parties; and no ‘victim blaming’.
The Health and Safety Executive and other enforcement agencies should prioritise their road safety responsibilities more highly too, and be assured of resources to do so.
Offenders, of course, need to be penalised effectively, and we are especially in favour of bans not just as a deterrent, but also because they remove unsafe drivers from the roads.
We have also long been campaigning for the long-promised review of road traffic offences and penalties because the current system isn’t working.
As for gathering insight into why crashes happen and evidence-based recommendations on how to prevent them, we’re pleased to see the launch of an independent Road Safety Investigation Branch, another move we’ve been calling for.
Making national standard cycle training widely available
The national standard for cycle training, often branded as ‘Bikeability’, is designed to help children and adults cycle safely and confidently on the roads.
We believe that Bikeability (or its equivalent) should be offered to all school children, widely available for adults and mandatory for all driving instructors and professional drivers, including HGV drivers. More people would then know what it’s like to cycle and not be perplexed (or annoyed) by cyclists’ manoeuvres such as ‘taking the lane’.
Adopting the right messages for cycle safety awareness campaigns
Advising all road users on how to travel safely is worthwhile both for their own and others’ sake, but public messaging should avoid putting people off cycling. It’s too beneficial an activity to make it sound unduly dangerous, and there’s no sense in eroding the safety in numbers effect (see above).
Equally, campaigns aimed at boosting drivers’ awareness of cyclists need to convey positive, memorable and truthful messages, and avoid giving the misleading impression that problem behaviour from cyclists causes anything like as much harm as problem behaviour from drivers.
Complying with national guidance on high quality road design
Bad driving is a hostile element on the roads, but so is substandard infrastructure.
The good news is that guidance on designing for cycling specifically has improved over the years and Active Travel England, an executive agency sponsored by the Department for Transport, should help ensure that councils in England spend their funding for infrastructure on compliant, high-quality schemes.
This is essential because poor and even downright dangerous infrastructure is still far too common.
Key guidance is:
- Cycle Infrastructure Design, LTN1/20, (DfT, 2020)
- Active Travel Act Guidance, (Welsh Government, 2021)
- Cycling by Design, (Transport Scotland, 2021 update)
Reducing the risk from heavy goods vehicles
Despite accounting for only about 4% of non-motorway motor traffic mileage on British roads, HGVs are typically involved in about 16% of cyclist fatalities, and 13% of pedestrian fatalities each year.
Cyclists’ collisions with HGVs are far more likely to prove fatal than those involving cars: the cyclist is killed in about 16% of serious injury collisions involving one HGV and a cycle. This figure is around 1%-2% for cyclists/cars.
Ways to tackle the problem include: maintaining and enforcing safe driving and vehicles; training and information for both cyclists and goods vehicle drivers; introducing a Direct Vision Standard (i.e. measuring how much drivers can see directly through their cab windows); ensuring road layout, routeing and distribution strategies minimise conflict; and subjecting drivers and vehicles that do not comply with the law to robust enforcement activities.
See Action on Lorries for more.
Targets and indicators
If road safety professionals simply focus on reducing the number of road casualties, they may be reluctant to encourage cycling, or even decide it’s best to discourage it.
The solution is to adopt ‘rate-based’ targets and indicators, i.e. to focus on reducing the KSI risk (killed/seriously injured) per million/billion miles or trips.
This is a better way of judging whether road safety policies are succeeding – for example, it’s a good sign if cycling levels rise more steeply than cyclist casualties.
Another good (and complementary measure) of success is whether the public thinks that cycle safety is improving.
At the moment:
- In England and Scotland, surveys suggest that the thought of dangerous/busy road conditions deters about two-thirds of people from cycling.
Perception-based indicators help focus attention on tackling the fears that deter people from walking and cycling, rather than developing the sort of counterproductive, scary ‘road safety education’ campaigns that make people, especially children and their parents, unwilling to cycle.
As perception data are based on surveys, local authorities may find this kind of indicator easier to monitor than casualty rates, which rely on collecting accurate cycle traffic estimates in the area. We believe, though, that it’s important to develop the local capacity to measure casualty rates too while, in the interim, surveying residents about their thoughts on cycling safety.
- Action Vision Zero (supporting campaigns to end road danger and traffic harm)
- Cycle Safety: make it simple (Cycling UK’s response to the DfT’s cycle safety review (2018))
- Parliamentary Advisory Council for Road Safety (charity providing the secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Transport Safety. Publishes reports on topical issues, including What kills most on the roads? (2020)).
- RoadPeace (national charity for road crash victims)
- Sources for casualty and road traffic statistics from DfT: reported road casualty statistics (Table RAS 0601), Great Britain; traffic estimates (Tables TRA 0104 & TRA 0402).