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Cycling safety – a special report

Is cycling a great way to get fit and save money on transport costs, or an increasingly dangerous pastime?

Cycling safety hit the headlines in November 2013 after a spate of cyclist deaths occurred in London over a two-week period and led to a range of claims and counter claims on safety. This Behind the Headlines special report looks at key topics on cycling safety and seeks to answer these and other questions:

Has cycling become more dangerous?

It depends what you mean by dangerous. The most authoritative data on cycling safety and accidents is provided by the Department for Transport (DfT). According to the latest figures, during 2012 in the UK:

  • 118 cyclists were killed (one every three days)
  • 3,222 were seriously injured (almost nine a day)
  • 15,751 were slightly injured (43 a day)

These figures are based on incidents reported to the police, so the true figure for cyclists being slightly injured is likely to be much higher.

Serious injuries are defined as an injury resulting in prolonged hospitalisation and/or significant disability. The key measure used by experts to judge cycle safety is "killed or seriously injured", which is sometimes shortened to KSI.

Trends in cycling safety data

There has been a rise in the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured (KSIs) over the past few years. The DfT estimates that the number of KSIs in 2012 was 32% higher than the average recorded for the 2005-2009 period.

This rise in KSI incidents has to be matched against the increasing number of people choosing to cycle. However, it is difficult to accurately measure the rise in either cycling journeys or the time and distance travelled.

The National Travel Survey (NTS) of 2012 estimated an increase of around 23% in the number of cyclists, compared to the 2005-2009 period. However, this is just an educated guess. While it is relatively straightforward to estimate car ownership, based on official data such as car registrations and tax records, no such robust data exists for cyclists. Therefore, it is important to put the current risk of cyclists being involved in a KSI incident in context.

Official figures taken from the NTS suggest that the general risk of injury from cycling in the UK is just 1 injury per 19,230 hours of cycling.

The cycling charity CTC points out that evidence suggests you are more likely to be injured during an hour of gardening than an hour of cycling.

It is possible that cycling has become more dangerous; however, the increased risk is thought to be small and should be seen in an appropriate context.


Are women more at risk of an accident?

Several newspaper reports have focused on deaths involving young female cyclists. These incidents are shocking, and may have led to a perception that female cyclists are more likely to be involved in a collision. In fact, men and boys are far more likely to be involved in a KSI incident than women and girls.

2009 analysis by the Transport Research Laboratory (a private research organisation) found that during the 2005-2007 period, 82% of KSIs were male.

A similar pattern can be seen in data published by the DfT and Transport for London (TfL).

While it is true that male cyclists significantly outnumber female cyclists in the UK, males are still over-represented in the KSI statistics. Even when taking this imbalance into account, it is estimated that males are 1.4 times more likely to be killed and 1.7 times more likely to be seriously injured than females.

Psychological research suggests that, generally, men take more risks than women. For example, a 2013 Dutch study found that male cyclists were less likely to have lights fitted to their bikes and more likely to run red lights at train crossings than female cyclists.

Women and HGVs

However, there is evidence that women in the UK have a greater risk of being involved in a collision with an HGV than men. The latest study into London's cycle hire scheme found that women were twice as likely to be involved in a fatal collision with an HGV, despite making up just 30% of the scheme’s participants.

One theory is that, somewhat counterintuitively, this increased danger is actually due to women being less willing to take risks.

A leaked TfL internal report suggests that women are less likely to jump red lights, meaning they are more likely to get caught in an HGV’s blind spot.

One UK researcher has argued that many women wrongly perceive that overtaking an HGV on the left-hand side is less risky, possibly because they believe sticking close to the curb is safer. The researcher did find a statistically significant trend in women reporting to be “left-side overtakers”.

Ideally, you shouldn't try overtaking an HGV (see Are HGVs the biggest risk to cyclists?), but if you do, it is safer to overtake on the right-hand side.

Overtaking an HGV on the left-hand side means you are in a driver’s blind spot for several seconds, and the vehicle could swerve suddenly into your path.

HGVs aside, female cyclists are actually less likely to be killed or injured in incidents. It would be easy to blame male risk-taking machismo, but the truth is we still don’t know why men are more at risk as cyclists.


What is the safest form of transport?

After adjusting figures for the distance travelled each year, the breakdown of the types of vehicles that contribute towards total KSI figures in 2012 were:

  • Cars  estimated to account for, in adjusted figures, 2.64% of incidents
  • Coaches, buses and taxis  12.30%
  • Pedestrians  12.30%
  • Bikes  33.58%
  • Motorbikes  38.98%


Motorbikes were found to be particularly at risk. Motorcyclists are around 35 times more likely to be killed in a road accident than car occupants.

However, this analysis does not take into account the inherent health benefits of cycling. Sitting in a car stuck in a traffic jam is not going to reduce your risk of heart disease or diabetes.

Are HGVs the biggest risk to cyclists?

Riding aside these giant beasts of the road can be intimidating, but data suggests they are not as dangerous as other vehicles.

By far the biggest risk to a cyclist in terms of a collision are cars and taxis. The 2012 DfT report recorded 2,434 collisions between a cyclist and a car, with the KSI rate between a cyclist and an HGV just 114.

Unsurprisingly, however, cyclists involved in an HGV collision tended to sustain more serious injuries than those involving cars. In 2013, there were 14 reported fatalities in London, nine of which involved an HGV.

A surprising number of cyclists endanger themselves unnecessarily. In 2012, there were 248 KSIs with no other vehicles involved. Instead, cyclists were injured or killed for reasons such as falling off or hitting the kerb.

However, it’s worth highlighting that a significant number of these incidents occurred when cyclists were impaired by alcohol. Transport Research Laboratory estimated that around one in four “non-collision cycle accidents” was the result of drunk cycling.

The message for cyclists is clear: look out for vehicles of all types, but don't forget to watch out for yourself.


Are there cycling accident hotspots?

Yes; however, accident hotspots vary depending on the time of the day and the cyclist.

For example, during the working week, around 60% of cyclists killed are using urban roads. This trend is then entirely reversed during the weekend, with around 60% of cycling deaths occurring on rural roads.

Working-aged adults are most likely to be killed between the commuting time periods (6am to 9am and 3pm to 6pm), while retired adults are more likely to be killed between 9am and 5pm.

The latest figures from TfL show that most cyclist casualties in the capital were on A-roads, with the majority happening at “Give Way” T-junctions and at crossroads.

Cycling KSI incidents involving HGVs tend to follow a more fixed pattern. Most occur at junctions and roundabouts linked to major roads in urban environments. Speed limits do not seem to be a factor. A 2005 paper found that the majority of HGV collisions occur when the vehicle is travelling at less than 10 mph.

In summary, accident hotspots exist, but they are not necessarily at a fixed place and time.


Can I lower my risk?

To understand the contributory causes to fatal cycle accidents, the Transport Research Laboratory has analysed data from 2005 to 2007.

For cyclists, the most common factors associated with fatal collisions were:

  • Failure to look properly – 31%
  • Cyclists entering road from the pavement – 17% (children are particularly prone to these types of incidents)
  • Loss of control – 17%
  • Failure to judge other person’s path or speed – 15%
  • Poor turning or manoeuvring – 11%
  • Cyclist wearing dark clothes at night – 10%
  • Not displaying lights at night or in poor visibility – 5%
  • Disobeying road signs and markings – 5%

In motorists (both cars and goods vehicles) most common contributing factors associated with fatal collisions with cyclists were:

  • Failure to look properly – 44%
  • Passing too close to cyclist – 19%
  • Careless or reckless driving – 12%
  • Poor turning or manoeuvring – 11%
  • Failure to judge other person’s path or speed – 11%
  • Disobeying road signs and markings – 4%

On average, there were 1.82 contributory factors associated with cyclists involved in a fatal collision and 1.60 contributory factors for drivers.

This suggests that cyclists are slightly more to blame for fatal collisions. However, this is just one set of figures. Whatever the true extent of “blame” (if any can or should be laid), it is important to note that cyclists are likely to come off worse from a collision. Even the safest cyclist cannot avoid all possibility of an accident, and these figures would suggest that greater vigilance on the part of all road users would reduce the chances of a collision.


Is London a dangerous place to cycle?

London is not as safe as some other major cities, many of which are designed to be cycle-friendly. One such example is Amsterdam.

There are an estimated 15 cycling deaths a year in Amsterdam, which is slightly higher than the London average. However, more than half of all Amsterdam's residents cycle daily, so while the number is higher, the actual risk to individual cyclists on a journey is far lower than in London.

Compared to less cycle-friendly cities with similar populations, such as New York or Paris, cyclist deaths in London are similar, according to news reports.

There are reports that there were no cycling deaths in Paris over 2011. This is not the case. The zero figure corresponds to La Ville de Paris (central Paris, where HGVs have been banned at rush hour) – an area the equivalent in size to zones 1 and 2 in London's transport system. However, having no cycling deaths in such a densely populated urban area is an impressive feat.


Is London getting safer for cyclists?

Historical trends suggest that cycling in London has become safer. While it is true that KSIs have increased over the past few years, the number of people cycling has increased significantly, according to TfL data.

TfL figures show that the number of KSIs per year has remained relatively constant since 2000. At the same time, the amount of people cycling in the capital has risen by 150%. This would suggest that cycling has become a lot safer in London, compared to previous decades.

However, public perception (often driven by media reports) has a big role in influencing how safe a city feels to its residents.

There was particular concern during the end of 2013, when six fatalities in the city occurred over just two weeks (see Links to the headlines), with many commentators, cycling advocates and local politicians calling for urgent action.

Every death marks a personal tragedy for all those affected. However, in purely statistical terms, those two weeks could have been an example of what is known as “statistical clumping”.

Statistical clumping is when a number of low-probability events (such as fatal accidents) occur over a short period of time, purely by chance, and may not be indicative of a wider trend. Making news out of statistical clumps is a journalistic error.