One way that Government Ministers disciminate against more and safer cycling

It’s been a ludicrously busy time for those concerned with cyclists’ safety. First it was the campaigns of The Times and others, kicking off parliamentary debates and protest rides; then the Mayoral elections, followed up by the Addison Lee episode.

But then we get another resounding clang against any kind of civilised approach to real safety on the road for cyclists (and others). Yes, it’s the words of the two minsters responsible for the safety of cyclists – no less. This has led various commentators to parade their gob-smackedness, including Minister for road safety loses his marbles live on parliamentary TV”  from the normally restrained Carlton Reid  . But actually there is nothing new here. From the point of view of traditional “road safety” ideology, this is completely rational and no marbles have been lost at all.

What we have seen in their estimation of levels of “cyclists’ safety” is a grotesque inversion of reality. And this is not just a technical issue about measurement: in turning the truth on its head they place yet another obstacle in the path of achieving cyclists’ safety.

 WHAT’S WRONG…

For those who have missed out on this episode, both Ministers claimed (in evidence session at the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport’s enquiry into road safety)   that the UK record on cyclists’ safety was superior to that in the Netherlands. This is based on measuring reported casualties per 100,000 people rather than per journey (or distance travelled, or time spent travelling) by bicycle.

Now – take a deep breath – there are many times more people cycling every day in the Netherlands (anything between 10 and 15 times as many depending on location). So, if the share of journeys by bicycle (cyclist modal share) is this much higher, if 10 – 15 times as many journeys/kilometres travelled are made and 10 – 15 times as much time is spent cycling per head of the population , then reported casualties (using deaths for convenience and reliability) per head of the population are going to be higher. They will be higher unless the chances of having been killed are 10 – 15 times lower per journeys/kilometres travelled/time spent cycling. 

(To be precise, we are dealing with retrospective analysis, so it is actually the chances of having been killed which we are talking about.) These chances – the rate of deaths per journey or distance travelled seem to be about 2 – 3 times lower in the Netherlands than in the UK. This is better, not worse.

It depends which rate (a numerator divided by a denominator) you think is better. Most people concerned with cyclists’ safety would choose casualties per distance/journey travelled by bicycle or time spent cycling.  It tells you something about the experience of the average cyclist. The road safety industry chooses per head of the general population – which does not.

The RDRF thinks that the road safety industry is wrong.

AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT…

I don’t want to get into a discussion about Dutch infrastructure or the reasons for larger numbers of journeys by bicycle in the Netherlands. All I have been doing above is to show that the traditional decision of the rate which is chosen to measure success is one which is biased towards a society where there are as few as possible journeys made by bicycle.

(An aside: Critical Mass and Safety in Numbers. We do think that, in accordance with the principles of risk compensation/adaptive behaviour, there is a tendency for the casualty rate amongst cyclists to fall with increased amounts of cycling. However, this decline in casualty rate – that’s casualties per cyclist journey or distance travelled, NOT per head of the general population – will not be enough to result in an overall cut in casualties per head of the population if there is an increase in the amount of cycling up to anything like Dutch levels.

So: in London since 2000 there has been  a level of KSIs (reported casualties as deaths and “Serious Injuries”) of roughly the same order, with an increase in cycling of  2 – 3 times. If this level of cycling were to be – for example – trebled to some 7 – 8% of journeys in the capital, the overall number of KSIs of cyclists in London would decline significantly (and may even increase), even with a cut in the casualty rate (of the kind we want to use) of some 40 – 50%).

What this all means is that, as far as the relevant Government Ministers are concerned – and this is, one should repeat, just part of the traditional way that “road safety” professionals operate – it is better for “road safety” for cyclists if there is no significant increase in the amount of cycling. “Road safety” is going to be against a significant increase in cycling and sustainable transport policy. It is as simple as that.

WHAT DO WE WANT?

An alternative way of measuring danger on the road is a key element of why the RDRF was brought into existence. We have been banging on about this since 1992 in pieces like this and this .

For me it started in 1984 at a “road safety” conference where a Eurocrat informed us that there was “a problem with cyclist safety in Denmark” because, yes, there was a higher than Europe average number of cyclist casualties per 100,000 head of the population. The there was the matter of pedestrian casualties being low at locations where there was so much danger for pedestrians that people would not walk there – and the “road safety” professionals had a “better road safety record” for pedestrians.

So what would be a better measure of safety for cyclists? Even KSIs per journey or time spent cycling would be inadequate. For us there is a qualitative, moral and political issue here: who kills /hurts/endangers whom? An elderly person riding an electrically-backed up bicycle too fast round a cornet (a current matter of concern in the Netherlands) becomes a different form of casualty from a cyclist behaving carefully who is knocked down by a motorist breaking the appropriate rules and laws.

This kind of difference is not brought out in even the kind of metric we have favoured over that of the “road safety” industry. But there is no reason why it cannot.

For the moment though, the key point is that here is the institutionalised prejudice against achieving more cycling expressed by the two Ministers at the Department for Transport responsible for cycling and the safety of cyclists. And because there is substantial evidence indicating that more cycling can lead to a decline in cyclist casualty rates – the ones that count for a civilised person, that is – they are against reducing the chances of them being killed or hurt as well.