Monday, July 2, 2012

Road Casualties 2011

Road casualty statistics, after a long period of decreasing overall casualty rates, have become a grim topic.

In 2011, casualties who were killed or seriously injured (KSI) on the roads increased by 2% over the previous year. There has been a sustained downward trend averaging about 4.5% since 1996. The Department for Transport (DfT) claim that the increase in 2011 is in part due to the effect of poor weather in 2010. I don't have the detailed breakdown by month, but 2010's figure was considerably better than trend, at about 9% lower than the previous year, so the 'bad weather' theory has some credibility. However for cyclists, bad weather doesn't explain the 2011 KSIs increase of 15% over the previous year, which are also 26% above the 2005-2009 average. 2010's figures were an increase of 2% over the previous year. Cycle traffic levels rose between 2009 - 2011 by a little over 3% nationally, so we're seeing a sustained increase in serious injuries that can neither be explained by lots of snow or by increasing numbers of cyclists.

The picture is even bleaker in London. Casualties rose 8% in 2010, and a massive 22% in 2011. TfL claim cycling increased by 15% in 2010. The problem is that we were promised that as cycling moved from being a minority activity to a mainstream transport mode, it would become safer due to the 'safety in numbers' effect. While that has likely been true to some extent, in 2011 cyclists accounted for 2% of journeys but 21% of serious injuries. Car occupants, by contrast, made up 35% of journeys and 40% of serious injuries. So per journey, you're an order of magnitude more likely to be injured on a bike than in a car.

But enough of raw statistics. We know Boris has been doing precious little to make cycling safer, but let's look at the actual effect this has on the environment in which people live.

On 26 June, just before 8 at night, while it was still light, a car ploughed into a bike being ridden by two boys in Woodhouse Grove, East Ham, just near the entrance to a local park. The car then crashed into a stationary vehicle, pushing it 60 yards down the road. Woodhouse Grove is a quiet road in the middle of a residential area, with traffic calming and 20MPH signs on the road surface. Exactly the kind of road where children should be able to go from their houses to a nearby park in safety. Instead, one of the children is dead. The other has lost his brother.
Now, you could say that such recklessness is exceptional and rare. Which is true to an extent, but it is also the tip of a considerable iceberg of dangerous and inattentive driving. I was out riding with my son on a very similar road on Sunday, with a 20MPH limit and traffic calming. A motorist came up behind us and very considerately waited and did not attempt an overtake. However, the car behind did not, and stormed past the first car at speed on the wrong side of the road. As it happened, there was no oncoming traffic, so this wasn't a problem, despite the driver having broken a number of points of the Highway Code. But there could have been another cyclist on the other side of the road, who the driver may not have seen until too late. The point is, cyclists of all ages are forced to share the road with motor vehicles. There is little attempt to control speeds or traffic levels on many roads. As cyclists we witness dangerous overtakes, cutting in, speeding, mobile phone use, red light jumping, and general recklessness in various combinations on a daily basis but unless there is an actual crash, incidents are almost never reported or acted upon by the police. You can bet that the driver who killed this young boy - the second to be killed on a bike in London so far this year, by my reckoning, had been driving in a similar manner for years, having lots of near misses and the occasional crash, and leaving a trail of intimidated pedestrians and cyclists in his wake. While most drivers are not utterly reckless, there are enough that pose a clear enough threat to make many parents declare even quiet streets like Woodhouse Grove out-of-bounds to their kids.
In other words, London's residential areas are not fit for purpose, if you consider that purpose should include reasonable access for children to recreation out-of-doors. Children should not be prisoners in their own homes, locked up for 23 hours a day and only allowed out for exercise when escorted.

Which brings us back to the national picture. Mike Penning, minister for road safety, confronted with the latest road casualty figures that should really get him sacked,  commented that he was taking "urgent action to crack down on the most dangerous drivers". I have no idea what that means. As cuts to police numbers bite, the probability of getting stopped for dangerous driving is now lower than ever. Cuts to safety camera budgets mean that the one existing way to deter and punish law-breaking drivers, however imperfect it might be, is losing its effectiveness. Meanwhile, mobile phone use, even texting and social network use while driving, is becoming the norm. And even if you kill when behind the wheel, the justice system rarely metes out any kind of punishment. There's never been a better time to be a crap driver. No wonder casualty figures are going up. Rather than cracking down on dangerous driving or ensuring that children, pedestrians and cyclists are protected from it, the Government and the Mayor of London are still persuing the cynical 'war on the motorist' and 'traffic flow' agenda, where safety and the upholding of the law takes second place to the speed and convenience of car journeys. While the Mayor is urging cyclists and motorists to 'share the road', the sharing of risk is about as inequitable as it could get.


  1. I share all your concerns about about motorists terrorising other non-motorised road users. I live in Melbourne and those issues you raised are very real here too. And what are the authorities here doing about improving road safety? There is a bunch of traffic coppers on bikes in Melbourne who are dedicated to harrassing cyclists who exercise choice of not donning a plastic hat. The price is A$154 fine. This is the mindset of the pollies downunder as far as road safety is concerned. The moral of the story is: any hint of mandatory helmet law must be nibbed in its bud and stamped out before the disease takes hold.

  2. The Penning comment shows that the government is trying to pretend like a very small proportion of drivers are responsible for most of the danger, hence the bizarre obsession with 'drug driving' as the number one problem.

  3. At least Penning is apparently promising (?) some action, and he lays the blame in a remotely plausible direction. His political ally, though hardly social soulmate, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (and no, I'm not making it up) seems to believe that it is all the fault of some traditional shoemakers, if the exchange reported on Val Shawcross' blog is anything to go by