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 657.

    There's a real danger that this bill will make motorists who don't cycle and don't understand cycling even more impatient on the roads when held up by a cyclist.
    Any motorised vehicle with a driver safe inside their speeding metal box is able to kill a soft flesh and bone cyclist whom they share the road with very, very easily.
    Who wouldn't ignore a law if an alternative is to be killed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 656.

    clairepagan Cyclists are allowed a 500mm zone from the white line which is in the highway code. The carriage way is normally 3m wide, your car is approx.1.4m wide. so why would you need the extra 1.1m of tolerance. Cyclists will only generally bang on cars for very good reasons.
    I cycle everyday and car drivers do hog the roads badly when there is no need. ESP. SUV'S they should be banned1

  • rate this

    Comment number 655.

    I cycle most days from Kings Cross to Bond Street. As an experienced motorist I follow the rules and there is nothing more infuriating than the army of smug cyclists who ride straight past at traffic lights on red or buzz pedestrians when I've stopped to let folk cross at a zebra crossing. A substantial number of fellow cyclists are selfish smug idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 654.

    I am a driver and a cyclist. I cycle in London daily and i am appalled by the lack of skill and attention that the majority of cyclists have. Learning to drive teaches you the skills required to cycle safely on a road, a majority of cyclists in London have no idea how the roads work and are usually cause the accidents that result in fatalities due to lack of knowledge. I have seen it first hand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 653.

    Cyclists should be made to have insurance and pass a proficiency test by law."

    And this would make sure no one cycles anymore and there would a lot more cars. Also, this would mean the end of children cycling, so I don't think this is a good idea. Maybe a registration number/number plate on bikes would help.

    PS: I am a cyclist myself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 652.

    Comments 509 and 510 say it all. I am on a cycle group committee and we all oppose bad cycling, as well as bad motorists and bad road design. More respect for other road users goes a long way. Acknowledge good driving or cycling admonish the bad whoever it comes from. It just happens cyclists are more vulnerable, but not as at risk as many think. Cyclists need room for potholes and gusty wind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 651.

    18 dead & 434 seriously injured is a pretty similar figure to the deaths & a far greater figure for the seriously wounded caused by legally held firearms in the UK, yet when it was revealed under 18s were being given shot gun licences (note licences, not actual shotguns) there were screams for more laws.

  • rate this

    Comment number 650.

    I have no problem with cyclists whilst I'm behind the wheel of my car and always try and give them the space and courtesy they require.
    On the other hand, as a pedestrian, especially in Cambridge and parts of Suffolk, I find them really difficult to cope with! They're nearly always silent, and consistently ride along pavements rarely giving warning that they're approaching you from behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 649.

    I cycle drive and walk. I would be very happy for a 'zero tolerance' approach to breaking the Law. I think that drivers would have a lot more to fear were such an approach to be introduced. But the roads would be a lot safer.
    I see bad cyclists, but I see a lot of bad motorists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 648.

    Cyclists need to be a bit more honest with themselves. We're not all perfect so need to take criticism - whilst off our bikes - more constructively. I don't buy Zoe Williams defence for jumping red lights - shifting the blame to motorists again.) We need to educate general car drivers more - to give us room and slow down - as instinctively as most do when they see a horse and rider.

  • rate this

    Comment number 647.

    If dangerous cycling is such a problem its amazing that they even allow cars!

  • rate this

    Comment number 646.

    PunkassCG - and where do you think the general tax fund gets its money from? Yes the car tax as well as general income tax, tax on parking in London etc. All tax goes into a general fund so whatever pays towards the roads etc is coming from all taxpayers and more from car drivers. There are safe/dangerous cyclists and drivers. All who use the roads should pass a test and pay tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 645.

    The figures showing the number of pedestrians injured/killed by cyclists compared to cars do show a major gap, but how many bikes are on the road compared to cars? And what's the difference in total annual mileage between the two?

    Cars are always more dangerous but if you take everything into consideration, and remember more people are turning to bikes, then this legislation is needed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 644.

    Yes, one rule for all road users. No more privileged groups, no more different laws for different people. Everyone travels on the same bit of tarmac, and plays (and pays) the same. This must include MoT-style tests for bikes to ensure they are roadworthy (and haven't had, for example, the brakes removed to "go fasta") cyclists carrying identifying plates, take a mandatory test, and get insurance

  • rate this

    Comment number 643.

    another law,groan. We already have the instant fine for cycling on the pavement - how many cyclists have received that? Not many I bet. It would be interesting to know. If that was enforced there would be no need for the killer law?

  • rate this

    Comment number 642.

    I see a lot of cyclists complaining that they don't feel safe on the roads, hence they have to cycle on the pavement, which I can understand; but, do those same cyclists remember that the pavement is for pedestrians and give them the right of way, or do they generally barge along telling/expecting those on foot to get out of the way? I know which it normally is, in my experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 641.

    I have not had any real experience of cyclists cycling dangerously, however in Birkenhead you rarely see a cyclist with lights on their bicycle. They just appear in front of you out of the dark. How they are not killed in their droves is a testament to the consideration of us baddie motorists in this area. Perhaps we are just used to the phenomenon, but it must be a shock to visitors to the area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 640.

    In Germany cyclists are ruthlessly fined (including the cycle confiscated if they can't produce ID), if they break the highway code - anything from cycling the wrong way on a one-way street through jumping red to cycling on the pavement.
    Everyone (including cyclists) considers it normal, and I haven't seen it deter people from cycling, if anything, it helps them to be considered vehicles by cars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 639.

    This is a complete waste of parliment's time, compare accidents supposedly caused by cycling with cars. This feels like driver jealousy where they cannot accept that it is often faster to negotiate traffic in cities on a bicycle. IMHO if you are cycling at walking speed it is no more dangerous than walking, therefore the same laws should apply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 638.

    No 7:

    "If there were more cycle routes and lanes provided then cyclists would be less likely to venture on to pavements, a behaviour which is largely caused by fear of being injured or killed by a motor vehicle when cycling on the road."

    You are happy to break the law and endanger pedestrians while you engage in an activity that scares you when conducted legally?

    Typical cyclist's attitude.


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