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Fewer drivers killed but cycle serious injuries and deaths up in 2012: complacency over road safety?

Chris Peck's picture
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Cycle serious casualties up 5% in 2012 against the previous year, the 8th consecutive year of increase, exceeding the background growth in cycling. Meanwhile pedestrian casualties have also started to rise, while those for car occupants are falling. What's happening?
Newer cars (left) are almost 3 times safer for occupants than older ones
Newer cars (left) are almost 3 times safer for occupants than older ones

A rise in the risk of cycling is seriously bad news, reconfirming that Government and local authorities need to up their game in improving conditions for cyclists.

However, the Government can point to a fall in all road deaths to the record low of 1,754 to claim that they are making progress on road safety. 

This improvement in overall road deaths is mostly due to exogenous factors and only an indirect effect of Government policy. In the view of the Transport Research Laboratory the reasons for the sharp fall in road deaths in recent years are:

  • Vehicle safety: more modern cars are safer than older ones for the occupants;
  • Weather: snow and ice in colder winters leading to less traffic and more cautious driving;
  • Exposure: young men run the highest risk, but driving levels have fallen furthest amongst this group;
  • Economy: linked to the above - the downturn in the economy led to reduced traffic, particularly amongst HGV traffic, which is disproportionately involved in road deaths.

None of these - with the possible exception of the last - are directly a result of Government policy.

Vehicle safety

The first of these points is pretty important. As the chart above shows, cars 0-4 years old carry a risk for the occupants almost 3 times lower than cars over 10 years old. 

However, that risk only pertains to those inside the cars. For those outside, the risk is similar for whatever age of vehicle. That is what comes of allowing car companies control over design: they will protect the person who pays them (the owner of the vehicle), regardless of the other victims.

Weather

Colder weather in recent years has led to sharp falls in traffic, and, possibly as a consequence of more cautious driving, falls in risk to those in vehicles. 

Exposure

Young men aged 17-21 carry a risk of death while driving far higher than any other age group - 20 times greater than men in their 60s. For this age group per mile travelled cycling is a safer mode than driving. But it is also in this age group that driving is falling fastest: 17% fewer miles driven in 2011 compared to the year previously, whereas mileage driven is increasing amongst older people.

Economy 

The tanking economy over the last few years has led to a steady reduction in motor traffic, 4% lower than its peak in 2007. That decline, as well as being amongst young drivers, is also pronounced among lorries, which pose a greater risk to all road traffic.

Meanwhile, the Government has been busy cutting road traffic policing, scrapping safety cameras, slashing road safety grants, and allowing more dangerous lorries on to our roads.

All this has meant that the risk to pedestrians and cyclists has climbed, while the Government can still sit back and claim credit for falling road deaths.

Computers and cars

It's a bit like the Government claiming that people are more computer literate today than they were 30 years ago, and that, thanks to their wonderful work, computer literacy continues to improve. This is more to do with the availability and improvement in technology of computers - an achievement of technology companies - than any Government policies.

Meanwhile, despite this continued overall improvement, the remaining computer illiterate population are becoming more and more isolated and vulnerable, losing access to vital services and sources of information that are often no longer available to those without web access.

Similarly, as dependence on private motor cars becomes profound, the safety of those in cars swallows the attention of policy makers, even if the danger to those on the periphery of the transport system - on foot or bike - remains, or, indeed, is rising.

Measure safety better

CTC's solution to this problem has always been to measure risk and danger better. Clearer indicators of road safety, both in terms of risk per mile travelled, and in the danger presented by various modes of transport, can help to improve this situation, and refocus attention on the source of danger, rather than the ever falling number of road deaths.

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