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 1517.

    While I see both sides of the argument, increasingly often I see the cyclists putting themselves in further danger by running red lights and stop signs in the daytime, sometimes even failing to observe which side of the road to be on, while at night totally failing to wear lights/high vis jackets - especially on UNLIT ROADS. More needs to be done to penalise reckless behaviour, for their own good

  • rate this

    Comment number 1516.

    While I see plenty of instances of motorists being silly and endangering other road users lives, I see plenty of cyclists not helping their cause. In the day, they seem to think red lights do not apply, stop signs do not apply, and that the direction of traffic is reversed. At night, they fail to wear lights/reflectors. More should be done to penalise such behaviour - after all rules are rules.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1515.

    I think everyone commenting on this thread should go and read the highway code. Just search online for "Direct Gov Highway Code" to get the free, online, up-to-date version.

    There are too many misconceptions about who is and isn't allowed on the road (everyone!) and what laws apply to whom.

    As a driver, cyclist and pedestrian the level of ignorance shown by some here is scary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1514.

    Cycle-lanes are not the answer to bad driving. Even if they were superbly designed and worked just as they were supposed to, cyclists make up only 5% of casualties. Strict enforcement of all existing laws would protect everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1513.

    When motorists kill as few people as cyclists then they can complain about how dangerous cyclists are.
    Anyone who believes that cyclists pay less tax than they do should buy themselves a bike and take advantage of this wonderful fact.
    VED is not a licence to use the roads, it's a licence to poison the air. How righteous and worthy you motorists all are to support the economy in this way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1512.

    I have actually passed my cycling proficiency test back in the 1970's (not on my Raleigh Chopper which was considered an unsafe bike), this is now called Bikeability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1511.

    It does seem this issue is taking a disproportionate amount of time considering the number of pedestrian deaths. I am a cyclist, driver and walker as well. Most motorists drive as if they have a higher priority on the road than cyclists and this adds to cyclist's vulnerability. Cycle lanes should be an answer but are poorly designed, poorly maintained and poorly cleaned. i.e. Rubbish for cyclists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1510.

    A car can take a minor 3 or 4 mph bump in traffic with no damage very often, a cyclist if nudged will fall over and a kerb stone makes for a great bone breaker.

    The issue of turning left, the number of junctions with barriers to funnel pedestrians leave cyclists with no escape route if a lorry/bus turns expectedly, or the cyclist puts them self in the wrong place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1509.

    Making comparisons between death by cars and death (or even serious injury) by bikes is weak, as you would expect to see a proportionately lower figure for serious incidents involving bikes as they are far less likely to cause death/serious injury than a car. These figures are meaningless when assessing cyclist behaviour and certainly do not prove that pedestrian concerns are unfounded

  • rate this

    Comment number 1508.

    Comments state there aren't penalties for cyclists but drivers always get penalised. Recently I've been forced into a bush by an oncoming car who wouldn't use his side of the road and knocked off by a driver who overtook then immediately turned left and stopped. A friend was chased and abused because whilst waiting to turn right he stopped someone overtaking. No consequences for these drivers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1507.

    Some cyclists need to pay closer attention to the restrictions already placed on them.There are pedestrian-only paths through a local park, which is a major route for lots of people, yet cyclists still use these paths. A friend was knocked over by a cyclist on one of these paths and suffered a miscarriage as a result. Stricter enforcement of current laws/ guides or a change in culture is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1506.

    Driving into work one evening I saw two cyclists ahead, riding one behind the other, as I approached the one at the back looked over his shoulder, must have seen me, then decided to pull out at the last minute and ride next to his mate, this caused me to brake heavily forcing me into oncoming traffic, when I sounded my horn I received a load of verbal abuse, this has happened a few times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1505.

    Hypocrisy from drivers - I see them jumping red lights, driving up on the pavement and threatening pedestrians due to their lack of knowledge or disregard of the Highway Code.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1504.

    Motorists need to learn how to drive alongside cyclists when learning to drive. Cyclists who break the law should get points on their driving licence. Councils should be forced to provide safe cycle routes (see Scandinavia). There should be a law forcing cyclists to have their lights on.

    Certain competitive cyclists are a menace to drivers, but most drivers don't know how to drive around bikes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1503.

    A number of comments have gone past about cyclists holding up drivers. There is another viewpoint.

    If a car cannot overtake it is typically because of the volume of traffic coming the other way, plus any parked cars also prevent overtaking because they are using road space too.

    Collectively, all the cars on the road are using up a disproportionate amount of road space compared to a cyclist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1502.

    @Duncan 1493.
    A big problem is that drivers are NOT being prosecuted effectively when they drive badly and cause injury or death. That is why some cyclists now wear helmet cams and we have speed bumps, 20mph zones etc as a reaction to inadequate prosecution and disregard for safety.

    If I saw a cyclist or driver injure someone I would assist in a citizens arrest. Much easier on a cyclist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1501.

    RE mivadar - I live in Berlin, and cycling on the pavement here is considered normal, and in fact many cycle lanes use parts of the pavement in places. I've never seen anyone being stopped for it. Might have something to do with the prevalence of very uncomfortable cobbled roads. That said, cycling on the roads is far safer here, due to well marked cycle lanes and far more considerate drivers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1500.

    664 Punkass - read
    "DVLA road tax and fuel duty both end up in the coffers of the Exchequer, along with your income tax and companies' corporation tax ... Council parking fees, ... Congestion Charge if you live in London, are paid to the Local Authority," There should be a cycle tax which is paid into the general pot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1499.

    @1492 - Lol, try and highjack it and turn it to an "ism". The problem is simply that there are a lot (far from all cyclists) of cyclists who ride their bikes with a total and utter dis-regard for anyone but themselves and with a breathtakingly arrogant attitude

  • rate this

    Comment number 1498.

    I try to speak with drivers after near misses and there is a small minority who are endangering lives on purpose after reading comments online.

    Typically they want me to move onto a cycle path that does not exist in my village, but feel so right they act as vigilantes. If you see a someone cycling dangerously, report it to the police and talk it over with someone.


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