Campaign season for the safety of cyclists – who cares if cycling is dangerous?

Now that I have your attention here’s a dictionary definition of that word: 

dangerous Pronunciation: /?de?n(d)?(?)r?s/ adjective    able or likely to cause harm or injury

Because what I think we need to do is examine the Paradox of Safety on the Roads: doing so should enable us to more accurately work out what the problem of safety for cyclists is about. Unless we do so, there is a very real danger (that word again…) that the current campaign will be fruitless.


Excuse what may appear to be pedantic. But do bear with me. This discussion is absolutely vital to cyclists’ safety.

The first issue is the central one of considering danger on the road: who or what is dangerous to whom? The “road safety” (RS) industry has glossed over this question since its inception. After all, the RS movement was founded by and for the nascent motorist lobby, and it was important for them to point the figure away from the motorised. The road danger reduction (RDR) movement has taken the opposite point of view: there is a need to see this question as absolutely fundamental to achieving safer roads for all road users.

In terms of civilised morality and natural law there is a crucial difference between being endangered and endangering others. Perhaps more importantly, safety for all road users, particularly those like cyclists who are outside motor vehicles, cannot be achieved without grasping this distinction.

This does not mean that cyclists are incapable of hurting (or very occasionally, even killing) other road users. And pedestrians can hurt or kill cyclists, and other pedestrians. It is also the case that all road users will have responsibilities towards others as and when we share the roads. It’s just that the motorised have a massively higher degree of potential lethality. This basic point would be accepted by Health and Safety regimes in other areas of modern life, but hasn’t really taken hold when it comes to getting about on the road.

This might appear to be “stating the bleeding obvious”. But it isn’t properly accepted by the powers that be, and it has to be if we are going to get a civilised solution to the problems of road danger in general, and particularly for cyclists. We have to go with the transitive (danger to others) meaning of danger – as in the dictionary definition above – rather than the intransitive (danger to oneself) one.

Confusing these two meanings increases the tendency to see cycling itself as the problem. It can help if discussions referring to the chances of cyclists being hurt or killed should refer to how hazardous – as opposed to dangerous – it may be.


A paradox is an apparent contradiction. That is not an actual contradiction, but an apparent one. This may seem pedantic, but this is important – so please bear with me.

The issue is about how hazardous (as opposed to dangerous) cycling is.

The paradox is about how – one the one hand – we have an appalling problem of danger on the road for all road users, particularly those outside cars.

This problem is not simply dreadful because innocent people can get hurt or killed, or even restricted in their choice of the more benign modes of transport for themselves and their families. Or the possible discomfort or inconvenience for them due to road danger.

It is dreadful because it is not – at least not fully – seen as a problem of road danger. Those responsible, whether highway or vehicle engineers or individual motorists, are not held accountable for their danger. The persistent refusal to do this is the issue that concerns us, and it is a moral and political issue that is not expressed by statistics of casualties.

The difficulty of actually discussing it in these terms is, in my view, scandalous. The absence of proper discourse about road danger is in itself a grotesque problem.

That is one side of the paradox: it is not too extreme to say that there is a monster on the backs of cyclists and others – one which is made more difficult to combat by being hard to talk about.

The other side is that cycling is not that hazardous – at least not as many who are campaigning (or claim to be campaigning) for cyclists’ safety appear to think.

Lets’ look at these two sides in more detail – and why we have to do so.

Consider this passage commenting on the “Save our Cyclists” campaign:   “Motor-traffic in general, the haulage business  in particular, kills people. They (sic) kill people at a rate that would be a national scandal if any other source – bad food hygiene? enemy action? unmanned level-crossings? – were responsible. A more sensible headline could have been ‘Tame Our Trucks’. The story is of death and life-changing injury consequent on hyper-mobility of goods and people. Focusing only on the hazards of cycle-travel distracts from this.

If you take the trouble to ride in a considered and conscious style you are – in Inner London at least – super safe. The difficulty is how we campaign to make travelling by bike even less hazardous, even more pleasurable, without reinforcing the widespread misconception that it’s somehow lethal (my emphasis).”

Indeed. What do we know about the chances, albeit retrospectively calculated, of being hurt or killed while cycling on the roads of London (which is where the “Save our Cyclists” campaign originates”?

The table below is based on figures given by Green Party Member of the London Assembly Jenny Jones.



Trips per KSI at 220 days cycling per year













































 Jenny Jones has used more recent figures, including the less reliable “Slight Injuries” statistics to show that the declining casualty rate among London’s cyclists has evened out or worsened over the last three or four years (under Mayor Johnson’s administration). However, the more reliable Killed and Seriously Injured line red line doesn’t show a significant dip in the last few years, which anyway would be relatively short term and difficult to draw conclusions from.

What we can say – and Jenny Jones has agreed on this point – is that there has been a significant decline in the chances of being hurt or killed as a cyclist since 2000. We can also say that – albeit allowing for the very rough estimation of a typical cyclist being a commuter making some 440 trips per year – is that the chances of having been reported as Seriously Injured (almost all KSIs are the Serious Injuries) run at some one every quarter of a million trips.

Or put it another way: in 2010 there were – allowing for 2.5 trips per cyclist per day – about 520 cyclists for each cyclist KSI. That means about one serious injury every ten lifetimes of daily cycling in London. With Slight injuries you can increase that to one in a lifetime. Of course, the majority of minor injuries are not reported – but then they are minor injuries.

Whichever way you calculate it, the chances of being reported as hurt or killed are pretty low.

But so what? What does this actually tell us? And – as explained above, there is still the monster of road danger out there.


 At this point it’s time to take a deep breath. Working out what the figures tell us has to be related to what we think the problem is.

 For the RDRF the problem is not cycling: focusing on cycling and its hazards tends to dangerise cycling, cause problems and impede solutions. While this is not the intention of most campaigners, the culture of our society often reinforces its injustices while apparently aiming to be on the side of those suffering from them.

 For us the problem is basically the road danger presented to cyclists, primarily by (ab)use of motor vehicles. Anything that impedes getting to grips with this is bad not just for cyclists, but others threatened by road danger and those wanting a sustainable transport system.

 In this light, let’s see what the numbers can tell us – and how focusing on the hazards of cycling can do wrong:

1. SiN and Critical Mass.

The reduction in the KSIs per cyclist journey in London is key evidence for risk compensation/adaptive behaviour by the motorized road user. Let us take just one example of this: cyclists killed in collisions with HGVs.

 While this number is too small for high quality statistical conclusions, the fact remains that this number of deaths is roughly the same now as it was in 2000. Since that time, the number of cyclists in the areas where most of the deaths have occurred  has at more or less trebled, while the number of lorries has increased.


While there have been some campaigns to encourage cyclists to watch out for lorries and avoid undertaking them, particularly at junctions, it would seem right to suggest that most of the change has occurred due to changes in lorry driver behaviour.

Again, some of this is due to campaigns by RoadPeace , and cyclist-awareness training taken by about 2% of London’s HGV drivers, but this cannot account for more than a small part of the massive reduction in the chances of a typical inner London cyclist being killed in a collision with n HGV.

Any change can be seen as multi-factoral, but a principal cause is the change in behaviour by lorry drivers aware of the increased number of cyclists around them. It does not have to be an increase in friendliness or respect by drivers, simply an awareness of what they may regard as an increasing hazard. While courtesy and politeness may well be desirable, the crucial factor is the pressure exerted by the “critical mass” or increased amount of cyclist traffic. This is the force responsible for the Safety in Numbers (SiN) effect, rather than any polite requests through publicity.

This does not mean that nothing apart from an increase in cyclist numbers is required. But it does indicate that not increasing the numbers of cyclists increases the chances of cyclists being hurt or killed.

 2. Cycling and life saving.

Quite apart from the reduction in danger to others when moving from car to bike, and the reduction in noxious and other emissions when moving from most forms of motorized forms of transport to bike, cycling increases the chances of those doing it of staying healthy and alive. There is debate about how much this is – but we can say that you are more likely to die from not cycling than cycling.

 3. Patronising and victim blaming.

Cyclists may well wonder why they are supposed to belong to somebody else, and whom that may be – note the phrase used by the Times and a previous (fizzled-out) campaign by The Independent: “Save our Cyclists” (my emphasis). As Mae West once said “Men are always trying to protect me. I wonder what they are trying to protect me from”. The Times campaign doesn’t focus on the ordinary motorists who are the primary threat to cyclists and all other road users.This is not ungrateful or pedantic. It is trying to get to grips with the issues – and warning of how a victim-focused approach can turn into a victim-blaming one. The numbers tell us that people (in rather larger numbers than those of just cyclists) are killed and hurt in collisions involving all types of motorised road user. Who should be the focus of attention.

 4. Other road user groups –  motorcyclists.

If we are going to look at a group of road users in terms of their high tendency to get hurt or killed, the obvious choice is motorcyclists. We don’t seem to read headlines about “saving our motorcyclists”, however. Yet this group is far more at risk than pedal cyclists, with about 1/5 road deaths being those of powered two-wheeler users, with a similar proportion of trips to cyclists.

So why are motorcyclists not focused on? I suggest that this is partly because they are already seen as having their problems addressed by staples of the “road safety” industry – crash helmets and training. Yet despite – or because of – these “road safety” initiatives, motorcyclists are the most at risk group of road users. Of course, motorcycling is often seen as “dangerous” – but not because of the threat it poses to others – particularly pedestrians who are killed in collisions with motorcyclists rather more often than with cyclists, despite what anti-cycling prejudice might suggest.

 Yet again, the culture of “road safety” talks about danger to motorcyclists rather than danger from motorcyclists.

5.  Lorries or other motor vehicles.

The Times campaign focuses on HGVs. Obviously, since about half the collisions where cyclists die involve lorries – and a similar number of pedestrians are killed under the wheels of lorries every year. However, the vast majority of vehicles involved in crashes with cyclists are not lorries, but other motor vehicles, particularly cars.  Is it too much to suggest that – as usual with “road safety” – it is uncomfortable to point the finger at journalists and readers of The Times?

 6. “Reducing casualties”.

The early day Motion on Thursday   includes: “ That this House … supports successive governments’ commitment to …reduce the number of cyclist-related accidents; … calls on the Government to take further action to …reduce the number of casualties on roads”.

But is that what we want? Cycling casualties are among the lowest they have ever been.  If we had the cyclist casualty rate of the Netherlands which is so often quoted (about 2 or 3 times lower than in the UK or for Amsterdam compared to London) and 2 – 3 times as many people cycling (as in the Mayor of London’s targets), we would have the same number of cyclist casualties. If we had a cycling modal share of towns and cities in Northern Europe (not just the Netherlands and Denmark, but Germany, and Belgium. Or Switzerland. Or Sweden) there is no way that aggregate cyclists casualties would be reduced, particularly if there are significant proportions of elderly people among the cyclists.

 What the numbers show is that – it is not the numbers that are important.

 A civilised response to the issue of cyclist safety is to reduce danger at source and – not least as a key way of doing this – making those responsible for danger (highway and vehicle engineers as well as individual motorists and those charged with enforcing the laws supposedly regulating them) accountable. It means not “dangerising” cycling and focussing on the motorised: the next post addresses this in more detail.