What do the latest road casualty statistics for 2015 mean for cyclists?

How safe are our roads?
While road users in general can take at least some comfort from the latest published figures for reported road casualties in Great Britain, there’s a distinct lack of reassuring news for cyclists. Cycling UK's Cherry Allan examines and explains the numbers.

Overall: all road users

To set the scene, in 2015 deaths for all road user types in total (1,730) dropped by 3% when compared to 2014, as did the number of people seriously injured. This is despite an increase in vehicle traffic of 1.6% over the same period.

In statistical terms, though, the Department for Transport’s (DfT) analysts say that fatality numbers have stayed the same since 2011, and that most changes in the figures year-on-year are more than likely to be down to random variation and chance. In other words, road safety hasn’t really been getting any better, or any worse as far as fatalities are concerned. It goes without saying, therefore, that we need national and local government to work much harder if we're going to see a real downturn in the number of deaths on British roads.

On the other hand, the DfT says that the decrease in seriously injured casualties (as reported by the police), is statistically significant and, as such, “more likely than not [ … ] reflects genuine changes on British roads.” But, as the authors point out, it’s never easy to single out the reason, or reasons, for yearly variations in casualty levels. It could be due to anything from changes in road user behaviour or in the weather, to economic growth or recession leading to more or fewer vehicles on the roads.

UK compared to Europe

In European terms, the UK has long been a top performer and 2015 was no exception. At 27.7 deaths per million inhabitants, the UK did better than most European countries except Sweden (26.6), Malta (25.6), and Norway (22.6) (N.B. Malta and Norway’s rates are likely to vary significantly between years because number of road deaths is very low).

Cyclists: another story

Cyclists, of course, can take advantage of many joys: increased levels of fitness, cost-efficient travel and – we must never forget – the knowledge that the health benefits of cycling hugely outweigh the injury risks. Bearing that well in mind, there’s not much joy to be had from road casualty statistics alone.  

With regard to the level of fatalities (and again in statistical terms) little has changed over the last nine years. The 100 cyclists killed in 2015 was the lowest number on record, but similar to the figures for each year since 2008.

On the other hand, by and large the number of seriously injured cyclists has been going up since 2004. Although 2015 saw a 5% drop in these figures from 2014 (3,239 down from 3,401), it is still the second highest year since 1997.

Of course, whether the risk of cycling is going up or down can’t be measured properly in absolute casualty numbers because this might simply reflect rises or falls in how many people have been out on their bikes. It is better to consider how many casualties there are per mile cycled.

Mile for mile, the risk of being killed whilst cycling is usually (and to the surprise of many) about the same as the risk for walking, although pedestrians fared rather worse that cyclists in 2015 at 35.8 deaths per billion miles walked. The figure for cyclists was 30.9 deaths per billion miles cycled.

Measured in this way, cyclist fatality rates have been dropping on the whole since 2005, which saw 55 cyclist deaths per billion miles. Also, at 31 deaths per billion miles, 2015 was slight improvement on 2014 (33).

However, if you add in seriously injured cyclists, it’s another and very disturbing story. The KSI (killed or seriously injured) rate per billion miles has grown significantly over the last 10 years. In 2005, it stood at 875 cyclists per billion miles, but in 2015 rose to 1,025  (up from 1,014 in 2014). To put this in context, the rate for motorised modes (except for motorcyclists) has been dropping all along.

It’s clear, then, that cycling safety needs serious attention, certainly if the Government wants to normalise it and stop people thinking that it’s too dangerous even to contemplate it."

Cherry Allan, Cycling UK's policy information coordinator

It’s clear, then, that cycling safety needs serious attention, certainly if the Government wants to normalise it and stop people thinking that it’s too dangerous even to contemplate it.

Bad driving, motor traffic speed and volume, and the disproportionate threat of lorries are particular problems, not to mention cycle-unfriendly road layout and substandard infrastructure. As ever, junctions are the places where most injury collisions take place – 73% in 2015.

Our Space for Cycling campaign, though, is on the case and, if you’d like to get involved in calling for road improvements in your locality, do come along to one of our roadshows.

Police reports and cyclist serious injuries

Most of the data used for the DfT’s annual road casualty reports come from STATS 19 forms, typically filled in by the police who attend the collision scene. Although they remain the most detailed and reliable single source of information on road casualties covering the whole of Great Britain, they do have their limitations. For instance, what an officer reports at the scene depends very much on their judgement and not medical expertise. Also, by no means every injury collision is reported to the police.

This makes the DfT’s accompanying report ‘Estimating clinically seriously injured (MAIS3+) road casualties in the UK’ very interesting reading. For the first time ever, this presents data on seriously injured casualties admitted to hospital, whether or not the police were called to the incident. It focuses on casualties given an ‘Abbreviated Injury Scale’ (AIS) score of 3 or higher which means an individual’s injuries have been classified as serious by medical experts.

Interestingly, this report says that ”… around 710 thousand people are injured to some degree in road traffic accidents each year, but only around 191 thousand casualties are reported to the police and recorded in Stats19. This suggests that about 519 thousand casualties are unreported a year, of which roughly 57 thousand probably had a serious injury.”

Even more interesting, is what the document says about serious injuries to cyclists. It shows that from 1999-2011, the police decided that 8% of the serious road injuries they reported overall happened to cyclists, but hospitals put this figure at 14%. The difference, says the DfT, “… could be due to the significant under reporting of non-fatal pedal cyclist casualties that occurs in the police data.” This is not the same for car occupants. In fact, it’s the other way round: hospitals say that 33% of their road traffic serious injuries over this period were car occupants, whereas the police put it at 45%.

This phenomenon evidently needs investigating. Is it because the police aren’t being called to the scene when cyclists are involved, even if they’re seriously injured? Or because some of the injuries happen in places and in circumstances where police involvement is unnecessary? Or because, if the police do attend, they don’t report the injury as serious? Or is it a mixture of factors?

20 mph – sensible talk

Finally, there’s some sensible words on casualties on 20 mph roads. The DfT concludes that increases in casualties on such roads are not because they are less safe (as 20 mph sceptics have tried to assert), but because there are now more roads where this limit applies.

The DfT even ran a voluntary survey of local authorities to test this hypothesis, and the results indicated that the number of miles of road with 20 mph speed limits increased by about a quarter between 2014 and 2015. This is roughly the same level of increase as the number of casualties on these roads. The DfT has commissioned further research on this subject too.

To keep uptodate on the latest data about cycling, read Cycling UK's Cycling Statistics page by Cherry Allan.