Friday, 8 February 2013

Increase in motor traffic leads to decrease in car driver/passengers killed or seriously injured. So why do we accept that more child pedestrians and people on bikes are being killed or seriously injured? Road safety only for car passengers?

Latest casualty data from the Department for Transport against long term average

Earlier this week, the government released its latest road casualty data for the third quarter 2012.

The figures show exactly the same trend we've seen for the last couple of years. Although motor vehicle traffic levels have increased (up 0.2% on 12 months previously), the number of people killed or seriously injured in motor vehicles is decreasing.

Meanwhile, the number of people killed but not in a motor vehicle is increasing month after month.

We are designing danger out of our roads for people but only when they're in motor vehicles. Look at the number of children killed or injured on our roads: The total number of all child road casualties fell 9% between third quarter 2011 and third quarter 2012. But the number of child pedestrians killed or seriously injured jumped 8%.

Pedestrian casualties (adults and children) are up 6%  The number of people killed or seriously injured on bikes is up 8%. If you look at the long term trend in the graph above, the picture is blindingly obvious. The trend shows that the number of people killed or seriously injured on bikes is up 25% on the long-term average.

In London, we've seen this tend coming. Ever since 2006, the number of casualties per cycle trip in London has been on the increase. We know this because the London Assembly crunched the numbers to show that the rate of people being killed and seriously injured on London's streets was increasing faster than the number of cycle trips being made (which is also increasing). As the London Assembly pointed out, when bike journeys grew 50% 1995-2010, the risk of cycle casualties actually dropped 50%. The London Assembly report is quietly damning about this: "The Mayor believes the 'safety in numbers' effect will improve cycling safety in London but this is not currently evident". Too true.
Tulse Hill in south London. This is probably classified as a 'safe' road for cycling. 
Pictured above is an example of the sort of road I believe is part of the problem of our road safety culture in action. This is Tulse Hill in south London. It's a busy A-road that links Tulse Hill and Brixton. It looks simple doesn't it? A basic, straight road that could be in any town in the UK. Yet this is the sort of thing that, I think, is helping to make cycling more dangerous.

Look at how this road works.

Each lane is just wide enough for the bus. I'd hazard just over 3 metres wide. With massive pavements most of the length of the road and hatchings down the middle. The hatching provides a relatively safe space for pedestrians to cross the road. And the narrow vehicle lanes mean motor traffic can only travel as fast as the vehicle in front. I can see how this road design slows down motor vehicles and, potentially, makes the road safer for people in cars.

Now, the funny thing is that when transport people define 'dangerous' roads, they tend to look at the casualty statistics. In the last five years this short stretch of road has seen 'only' eight cyclist casualties. I've seen countless pieces of correspondence from TfL and from London boroughs that talk about roads like this: "Low number of cyclist casualties on this road therefore equals 'must' be safe for cycling". Or words to that effect.

Safe road for cycling then? Well, no it's not actually.

The lanes are just about wide enough that motor vehicles think they can squeeze past you. It's filled with huge potholes. It's just intimidating. My own guess is that people generally avoid cycling down Tulse Hill if they can because of the way the road brings people on bikes and in cars into dangerously close proximity again and again along its length.

More importantly, a road like this actively stops people from cycling in the first place. For the simple reason that the road just feels horrible to cycle on.

Believe it or not, this sort of thing is 'normal' in most
countries. Not the sort of roads we get in the UK.
We're stuck in the dark ages.
Courtesy ibikelondon blog
The latest government data tells me that our whole road safety culture is wrong. We have road engineers who look at a road like Tulse Hill and think it is 'safe'. On a statistical measure, perhaps it is indeed 'safe' but that's only because everyone else (the people who might otherwise choose to cycle here, for example) use common sense and leave the road to the motorist. As Manchester Bike Mummy points out on her blog, most people already feel they've lost their right to use the roads, precisely because of road layouts like this. So, people drive instead of getting on a bike.

The tragedy is that the government will continue to sell us all the message that UK roads are getting safer. Because, looked at in totality, they are. There were 7% fewer fatalities than there were a year ago. But the number of people being seriously injured increased 2% on the previous year. And the people driving that growth in serious road injuries are a) children pedestrians and b) people on bicycles. My own feeling is that the roads aren't getting safer. Perhaps modern car design makes people in cars safer. But the corollary of that is that those 'safer' people are busy making the roads more dangerous for everyone else.

I'll leave with a comment by a newspaper I rarely read. But which got the message absolutely right on this a year ago. And that newspaper is the Daily Mail:

"I think our roads are statistically safer largely because soft targets, particularly child cyclists, have almost entirely retreated from them. But the roads are not really safer. It’s just that people have learned to avoid them unless they themselves go out in armour". 

If you want people to cycle and walk, you have to create conditions where they can cycle and walk. And that means making safer networks for people on foot and on bikes. Not only for people in motor vehicles. The government is clearly failing to achieve that.