Is dangerous cycling a problem?


MPs could introduce a new offence of causing death by dangerous cycling. But how much of a danger do these two-wheeled travellers really pose?

There is little that divides UK public opinion more sharply than cyclists.

To their supporters, Britain's bike-riders are clean, green, commuters-with-a-conscience, who relieve congestion on the nation's roads while keeping themselves fit.

But to certain newspapers, and indeed plenty of motorists, they are "lycra louts", jumping red lights, hurtling past pedestrians on pavements and denying the Highway Code applies to them.

Now this debate - regularly articulated, with the aid of Anglo-Saxon dialect, during rush-hour traffic - has found a forum in the House of Commons, where MP Andrea Leadsom has introduced a private members' bill to create new crimes of causing death or serious injury through dangerous or reckless cycling.

She cites the case of Rhiannon Bennett, who was 17 when she was killed by a speeding cyclist in 2007. The cyclist - who, the court heard, had shouted at Rhiannon to "move because I'm not stopping" - was fined £2,200 and avoided jail.

Pedestrian casualties 2001-09

  • Killed by cycles: 18
  • Seriously injured by cycles: 434
  • Killed by cars: 3,495
  • Seriously injured by cars: 46,245

Figures apply to Great Britain. Source: Department for Transport

The MP, herself a keen cyclist, insists she does not want to penalise Britons from getting on their bikes. Her intention is to ensure all road users take "equal responsibility" for their actions, as drivers are already subject to analogous legislation. The government has said it will consider supporting the bill.

But the discussion raises the question of how much of a danger bicycles actually pose on the nation's roads.

Cycling campaigners insist the popular perceptions of rampaging cyclists are not supported by statistical evidence. According to the Department for Transport (DfT), in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, no pedestrians were killed in Great Britain by cyclists, but 426 died in collisions with motor vehicles out of a total of 2,222 road fatalities.

Indeed, bike riders insist it is they who are vulnerable. Of the 13,272 collisions between cycles and cars in 2008, 52 cyclists died but no drivers were killed.

Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom urges MPs to back a change to the law

Alex Bailey of the Cyclists Touring Club (CTC), which lobbies on behalf of bike users, says valuable parliamentary time could and should be used more effectively to improve road safety. He says there is no need to change the law as twice in the past decade an 1861 act has been used to jail cyclists who killed pedestrians while riding on the pavement.

The notion of the marauding, aggressive cyclist causing rampage on the road, he insists, has little grounding in fact.

"It has a lot of currency in the media," he says. "But it's emotionally based, not rationally based. The problem is not about cyclists at all."

Certainly, few would argue that the boom in cycling has led to a transformation in the activity's public image.

Great Britain cycle safety statistics

  • In 2008, pedal bikes made up 1.8% of urban, non-motorway traffic but were involved in just 0.25% of pedestrian deaths and below 1% of serious pedestrian injuries
  • During the same year, there were 13,272 recorded collisions between cars and bicycles, resulting in the deaths of 52 cyclists and no car drivers or passengers
  • A study of collisions between cyclists and other vehicles from 2005-07 found police allocated blame to drivers in 60% of cases, to the cyclist in 30% and to both parties in the remainder

Source: Department for Transport

Once it might have conjured up images like that of George Orwell's old maids "biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings".

Now, at least in built-up areas, one stereotype, rightly or wrongly, is of well-paid men in expensive leisurewear with a sense of entitlement and a refusal to conform to the same rules as everyone else.

Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Living Streets, which represents pedestrians, says that while most cyclists behave safely, it should not be ignored that "a significant minority cause concern and fear among pedestrians by their reckless and irresponsible behaviour".

He acknowledges deaths and serious injuries caused by cyclists are relatively rare, but adds that the impact of more mundane anti-social behaviour is more difficult to quantify.

"Although fatalities are recorded, there is no way of measuring how many people have been intimidated or left feeling vulnerable by irresponsible cycling," he says. "We know from our supporters that this is a major concern."

The first-ever cycle crime

Kirkpatrick Macmillan's bicycle
  • Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith from Keir Mill, Dumfriesshire, is credited by most historians with inventing the pedal bicycle in 1839
  • In 1842, a newspaper report describes "a gentleman from Dumfries-shire bestride a velocipede of ingenious design" who knocked over a little girl in Glasgow's Gorbals area and was fined five shillings
  • Many believe the offender must have been Macmillan himself. He died in 1878 without ever having patented his invention

Indeed, Professor Stephen Glaister, director of motorists' advocacy group the RAC Foundation, suggests much of the hostility on the roads stems from a lack of understanding and suggests levelling out the legislation would reassure drivers that the rules were being applied fairly.

"In some ways, road users are tribal in their nature; loyal to their fellow drivers or cyclists, and dismissive of - or antagonistic towards - those who choose to travel by another method," he says.

"Subjecting everyone who uses the public highway to the same laws might actually forge better relationships between us all and erode the idea held by many that those who travel by an alternative mode routinely make up rules of the road to suit themselves."

But some bike-users reject the idea that anecdote and mutual suspicion should drive policy.

In particular, Guardian columnist and cycling advocate Zoe Williams says she is exasperated by the references to red light-jumping whenever bikes are discussed.

She insists the practice largely stems from fear, not arrogance, due to the high number of cyclists killed each year by heavy goods vehicles turning left at junctions, and says ministers should concentrate on tackling such deaths if they really want to make the roads safer.

She adds: "Can you imagine if every time we talked about cars people complained about drivers doing 80mph on the motorway?

"Most cyclists are actually pretty timid. You're constantly living on your wits because you're vulnerable. Instead of drawing up laws like this we should be encouraging cycling and making it easier."

The discussion will continue at Westminster. But legislating away the antipathy between cyclists and drivers will surely be a momentous challenge for MPs.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    The way I see it is that if you are going to ride a bike and do so on the road, you yourself are classed as a vehicle and should abide by the rules that people driving cars abide to....also it frustrates me even more so when I see people riding on roads without helmets - this i feel should be compulsory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    If you run a red light on a bike not only do you run the risk of knocking someone over but of being knocked over yourself. As is often the case the rules are there to protect people and enhance their life experience. Break them at your peril. None of us is perfect but we can all contribute to safer streets and roads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    What we need is a 'cycling licence' , with people getting points for bad cycling, and the bike impounded if you get too many points.

    The problem with bad cycling isn't just that the bike might hit someone, but that everyone else has to get out of the way, and might cause other accidents. If a car dodges a bike going through a red light and hits someone, it's the driver that's blamed, not the bike

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    With my motorist's hat on - all bikes should have LIGHTS and USE them.

    With my pedestrian's hat on - all bikes should have a BELL and USE it to warn of their approach. Cyclists on pavements should ride slowly and carefully.

    With my cyclist's hat on: walkers on a shared cycle path should remember that cyclists exist and that walkers are not entitled to occupy 100% of the path 100% of the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    307. newphase
    It might also help if ignorant pedestrians stopped walking in cycle lanes....

    Stop cycling on the pavement and we might have somewhere to walk!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    Cyclists should be responsible for their actions & keeping to the law - I cycle & drive but see bad cycling on a regular basis.

    This morning, following a car on a circular one way system which has a blind corner. A cyclist came along the road - the wrong way after cycling through a pedestrian precinct (cycling banned) & hit the car in front. Cyclist blamed the driver for not looking!

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    I cycle and drive to work and have NEVER seen a cyclist jump a red light in the 7 years I've been commuting, but I've seen plenty of cars doing U-turns on lights that have a no U-turn sign, pulling up at lights in the cycle only area and generally being aggressive towards us. I also have to cycle around plenty of jaywalking pedestrians at traffic lights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    I'm a cyclist,and in my experience most cyclists who jump lights or ignore traffic flow are either lazy or caught up in machismo (which is odd, since stop-start cycling is in fact more physically taxing).Many experienced, strong cyclists don’t realise that their behaviour can influence the treatment received by others.Whether they like it or not, they're ambassadors for more vulnerable cyclists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    About time to, if you ask me. Why shouldn't cyclists be made to abide by the same rules as the rest of the road users? And if they break those rules, then they also should be brought to justice the same way as drivers of motor vehicles. I agree with Poolebear, and all cyclists doing a cycling proficiency test, etc. My parents wouldn't let me cycle on the road until I'd passed mine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    As a quick win all cyclists - if not already a full driving licence holder - should be made to take the theory part of the driving test - and be fined if they haven't passed it

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    I'm not a cyclist, I'm a driver and pedestrian. Yet reading the comments from some other drivers I wonder if we're even living on the same planet. I could count the number of times I've seen a cyclist riding in a manner dangerous to others on the fingers of one hand. Yet each time I drive, I see other motorists endangering pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    I forgot to add that to all drivers in tinted windows who drive a speaker with full base on wheels with fake twinn exhausts, those things on the side of your speaker are called mirrors and the paddles on stick things either side of your stirring wheel are called indicators. It would help cyclists a lot if you used them. That goes for some of you numpties over the age of 25 who forget as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    I love reading the comments on this type of story. Hysterical views from both extremes backed up by a 'once upon a time this happened to me' story that brackets all cyclists or non-cyclists into the same group who should be loved or hated with equal passion. The story already makes it clear that laws can be used to prosecute dangerous cyclists if necessary. Is more specific legislation necessary?

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    All road users should be responsible, courteous and safe. I also encourage safe cycling but I worry about the lack of required road training. There should also be enforced minimum equipment. Why would someone want to ride a bike with no lights or efficient brakes, a sight I see too often? It's a self-inflicted danger that is hazardous to other road users and pedestrians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    I regularly walk to work, and am struck by the cyclists whizzing past me on the pavement, and going back and forth from road to pavement, the latter being to avoid heavy traffic; some cyclists do this with children on board! I agree with Poolebear - there should be a standard of road safety reached before cyclists are allowed on the road, and there should be insurance in case of accident.

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    Cyclists have been killed by heavy vehicles turning left. This is because cyclists edge down the side of the road, next to the kerb, so when the vehicle moves, the drive doesn't know that the cyclist is there. If they waited their turn at the back of the line like other road users, they'd be safe. Cyclists should stop blaming everyone else on the road, and take accountability themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    I think that cycling proficiency tests should be mandatory to cycle on the roads. It worries me that cyclists who don't drive may never have seen a highway code, but are out in traffic. Yesterday I was nearly hit by a cyclist as I crossed at a "green man" and he ignored the red light, and it wasn't the first time. If you cycle on the roads, you should follow the same rules as the rest of traffic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    I live and work in places that the councils have kindly built cyclists their very own cycle lanes, please, please, please use them and not hold me up driving to work. A cyclist will not get hit by a road motor vehicle if they stay in their lane that I have kindly helped pay for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    Let the cyclists ride on the pavement as well as one the road if they so choose or perhaps if the pavement is clear. I hate getting stuck behind a bike waiting to overtake when the pavement is completely clear. I also imagine cyclists hate the feeling of cars behind them.
    Making a bell or a constant jingle compulsory on bikes might be a good idea. More cycle lanes too of course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    In 2009 426 pedestrians and 52 cyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles. No pedestrians or drivers died in collisions with cyclists.Is it really the best use of parliamentary time to propose greater legislation against cyclists? I don't think so. Pedestrians, cyclists and the environment have a common enemy, the car.
    I think I know how to vote.


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