editor Jeff Jones tackles safety concerns for the swelling numbers of cyclists and, er, chocolate...

OFF THE RADAR: Sounding off on safety

Before I start, I have a confession to make. I wanted to write about chocolate. But as editor of, I felt duty bound to focus on something more serious: the battle to make cycling safer. Well at least you’ve read this far.

I’ve been in the UK for three years now, having formerly been based in Belgium and Australia, and have been impressed at how big cycling is in this country. This is despite the miserable climate and a transport infrastructure and legal system that has not been designed to accommodate cyclists. And the good thing is that we know it’s getting bigger.

The Cycle2Work scheme and the relative cheapness of using a bike to get around, the Department of Health pushing cycling as an ideal way to get fit and cut obesity and the blossoming success of British cyclists in all disciplines of the sport – it’s all contributed, meaning that despite the recession, the bike industry is a pretty good place to be.

For would-be or current cyclists, safety on the roads is a big concern – a showstopper for many. Riding a bike is easy. Riding a bike safely in traffic requires a good deal of skill and concentration. That takes time to learn and unfortunately there’s not a lot of room for error. Even just being aware of the dangers and making sure you can be seen is a good start. How about free (well,
Government-funded) cycling proficiency training courses and reflective ankle bands with every new bike purchase? Prevention is cheaper than cure.

Getting more people to ride bikes will also help, although the most recent accident figures from the DfT – when taken in isolation – seem to show the opposite. Serious cycling accidents and deaths jumped 19 per cent in the second quarter of 2009 compared to the same period last year, whereas participation increased by just 12 per cent. But stats shouldn’t be taken in small doses like this.

Year-on-year, the increase in serious cycling injuries was only four per cent, and there’s been a net decrease since the mid ‘90s. But this isn’t good enough, especially as pedestrian, motorcyclist and car driver casualties all fell by between six to eight per cent, while overall road traffic dropped two per cent last year.

The CTC suggests the spike could be a result of a skill lag: new and inexperienced cyclists are bearing the brunt of the deaths and injuries. And a small proportion may be bringing it on themselves by jumping through red lights. That could be verified by sifting through the data (I wish my deadline wasn’t in half an hour). Or it could be that motorists are more frustrated or more distracted in these dire economic times. Or drivers of heavy goods vehicles and buses need to be taught to look out for cyclists. Or a combination of all the above.

That’s not even taking into account more general safety measures like speed limit reduction in built-up areas and better cycle lanes. And how about a change in the law to make it the motorist’s fault in the case of a collision with a cyclist or pedestrian? It’s then up to drivers to prove otherwise.

It sounds radical but it is possible. This is how things are in the cycling-friendly Netherlands (among other European countries) and it hasn’t crippled them.

We’ve all got roles to play in the safety issue, from lobbying and campaigning for safer roads and better laws, to reporting on all the issues, to making safety kit that people will want to ride in. It’s a battle being fought on many fronts but we can already see progress. There have been shifts in thinking by policy makers in Government, who are starting to recognise that the bicycle is not an outdated piece of technology. It’s one of the most brilliant machines ever invented and will be a key part of a greener, healthier, happier society. Alongside chocolate.

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