If we want safer roads for cycling we have to change how we measure road safety


Below is the text of this article which appears in the current issue of Local Transport Today Issue 635 15 Nov 2013. Subscribers to the electronic version can also read it here

Last year the Ministers for cycling and road safety sparked outrage by suggesting that the Dutch had an inferior cycling safety record compared to the UK. Of course, in terms of cyclist deaths per 100,000 population – the conventional “road safety” metric – it is worse. In terms of deaths per journey, distance, or time travelled – it is far better.

From a Road Danger Reduction (RDR) point of view, as opposed to the conventional “road safety” (RS) view, the people complaining were right – the human experience of risk per trip is contradicted by the official view. And the official view inherently discriminates against having far more cycling, unless the death or other casualty rate (per distance, journey etc. travelled) goes down by a greater factor.

Remember that this is not an arcane exercise for professionals, but goes right to the heart of what people want in terms of safety, and how people adapt to perceptions of danger (risk compensation), with some awkward issues being presented to the RS lobby.

A better measure than the dominant one – as has been flagged up by cyclist groups, some enlightened Councils, and even central government – is one taking some account of exposure: journeys, time, distance travelled. (Incidentally, much of this article applies to pedestrians as well). It does take resources to do counts, but they are necessary to give a meaningful indicator. Presenting the information this way also has the benefit of showing that cycling, particularly in London, is far less hazardous than is often made out.

But we need to go further. Although subject to the usual problems of knowing exactly what happens in and before a collision, we have a good idea of the movements preceding cyclists becoming “Killed or Seriously Injured” (KSI), certainly in London.  As well as helping identify preventive measures, this determines  who is legally responsible: we thus open the discussion out into who kills or hurts whom.  So we could have useful indicators of chances of a cyclist in a given year being hurt or killed by a – legally responsible – car driver.

If, by “Cyclist safety” we mean what cyclists can do to other road users, we get a useful indication that cyclists are much less likely than other road users to be involved in incidents where others get hurt or killed. How about a “Who Kills/Hurts Whom” indicator, where a mode is portrayed in terms of the chances of its users being in a collision where somebody else gets hurt or killed?

The debate really takes off with the idea that a given location is/is not safe because there are few cyclist KSIs. The RDR movement has long struggled to show that there may be an absence of casualties because of low exposure – very often precisely because the location is seen as being hazardous.

This is not just a subjective whim. Locations like large gyratories, and places where cyclists may have to cross multiple lanes of fast flowing motor traffic, are places with higher than average dangers from motor traffic.

In that sense, professionals dismissing the fears of actual or potential cyclists are wrong. And we can measure objective danger factors:  levels of Bikeability skills required to negotiate a junction, numbers of lanes to cross, speed of motor traffic etc. As Basil Fawlty might say, the fact of greater danger at some locations is often “bleedin’ obvious”, irrespective of or even inversely related to cyclist KSI numbers. And there are plenty of general indicators of road danger – for all road users – which can be usefully appended: the usual percentiles of speed, proportions of drivers unregistered, numbers of insurance claims made by motorists, etc.

Where does this measuring actually lead? Looking at locations with so-called “accident problems” has always been pretty hopeless as a guide to action for cyclist safety. Quite apart from the points above, there are issues with low numbers and non-reporting.

What do we actually want? This is a moral and political point. RDR differentiates between incidents such as a drunken cyclist falling off his bike and ones where the cyclist is struck by an illegally driving motorist. Neutralising that difference, which is the effect of RS totting up numbers of “cyclist Road Traffic Accidents”, is unscientific as well as immoral. And the key point is to draw attention to the need to reduce danger at source, namely from the (inappropriate) use of motor vehicles. After all, a safety issue can be responded to by any kind of supposed “safety intervention”, irrespective of the chances of actually reducing danger.

Naturally, in a car-dominated society, such talk leads to the accusatory “but it can be the cyclist’s fault”. But the fact that motorists can be responsible for hurting or killing themselves has not prevented construction of the “forgiving” environment for them: airbags, crumple zones, seat belts etc. by vehicle engineers; felling roadside trees, crash barriers and anti-skid etc. by highway engineers. All of this idiot-proofing is known to have exacerbated the idiocy, if not produced the idiots. Creating a forgiving environment for cyclists (and others) by reducing danger at source might well  collude with carelessness by cyclists – but those who colluded with  rule- and law-breaking by motorists can hardly argue against doing the same for rule-breaking that is less dangerous to others.

Road danger reduction ultimately means a change of culture – whether expressed through law enforcement, vehicle or highway engineering or just plain human behaviour. At the very least, aggregated cyclist KSIs must now no longer be the dominant measure of cyclist safety. Instead, targets must be based on exposure, objective danger factors, and legal responsibility for collisions.

3 thoughts on “If we want safer roads for cycling we have to change how we measure road safety

  1. Pingback: What’s wrong with Transport for London’s Cycle Safety Action Plan (Part One) | Road Danger Reduction Forum

  2. Mark Lynch

    Funny how the government tries to mask the figures. There is definitely still a perception out there that cyclists get in the way and shouldn’t be on the road and they are often disregarded when it comes to accident statistics.

  3. Pingback: TfL: road danger reduction approach to safety on the roads?

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