Wednesday 13 May 2009

World's safest roads

The How We Drive blog recently covered a British document about making Britain's roads the safest in the world. At present, as shown in the diagram, Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) has the second safest roads in the world, while the United Kingdom (also including Northern Ireland) has the fourth safest. The number one position is taken by the Netherlands.

There is a very large difference between the Netherlands and the UK in the approach which has been taken to reduce casualties.

Britain has achieved its safety in large part by removing the vulnerable and increasing the safety of crashing motorists. This has happened by several different means. Road designs are such that they discourage cycling, resulting in the UK having amongst the lowest cycling rate in the world. Children are increasingly transported by their parents cars and are comparatively rarely seen on the streets alone. Pedestrians are inconvenienced by waiting for light controlled crossings or take detours behind metal barriers. Many more roads in the UK have physical barriers alongside them to prevent cars from crashing into inanimate objects, and trees near roads are removed to make crashes safer.

These things have improved overall safety, but at the expense of convenience and safety of pedestrians and cyclists. They have lead to more driving as a result, and an increasingly dangerous situation on Britain's roads for cyclists.

The Dutch approach is very different. The Netherlands has the highest rate of cycling in the world. There are far more vulnerable road users and children in particular have a remarkable degree of freedom to roam. The convenience of cyclists in particular is paramount in design. These things individually could be seen to increase the level of danger to the vulnerable, but despite all of it the roads in the Netherlands are still safer than those in the UK, or indeed anywhere else in the world.

There is a problem here for those who promote cycling in the UK. While Britain's overall safety record is comparable with that of the Netherlands, British cyclists experience about four times the level of danger (it's seventeen times as dangerous to be a cyclist in the US. Reference at the same link). Increasing their numbers will lead to the UK's overall casualty rate worsening. The only way to counter this is to do what the Dutch have done and make the vulnerable less vulnerable. It is possible to do this at the same time as making cyclist's journeys more convenient.

"Safety in numbers" is as much wishful thinking as anything else. Dutch cyclists are safe not merely because they are numerous, but because they have infrastructure which is sympathetic to cycling and makes cycling safe. The same number of cyclists plonked down in, say, London, would not fare so well.

Road deaths in the Netherlands dropped through sustainable
, not wishful thinking about safety in numbers.
A look at other countries in the chart shows another possible future for Britain. Belgium, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden all have higher cycling rates than the UK though lower than the Netherlands. They also all have worse overall road casualty figures. You can put this down to having infrastructure which is simply not quite so good as in the Netherlands.

If Britain is to grow its rate of cycling and improve its safety then it needs a radical change to the way that planning is done. Cycling needs to be both attractive and genuinely safe. Reliance on the myth of "safety in numbers" will not make cyclists safe on unsafe roads.

The Dutch give the credit for their extremely good result for road safety to the principles of Sustainable Safety.

Other people have also written about suppression of activity by vulnerable road users.

2015 update
The blue line shows a clear rise
in cyclist injuries in the UK.
Sadly, my predication above that "Increasing their (cyclists) numbers will lead to the UK's overall casualty rate worsening" has proven to be true. The number of journeys made by bicycle in the UK has only risen a little, but cyclist injuries have risen along with that increase. The UK and other nations with the same problem need to copy those things which truly work to make cycling safe and convenient.

As for the other countries in the chart, some of you have a long way to go. American roads overall are nearly three times so dangerous as those in the Netherlands, but American cyclists experience 17x as much danger as their Dutch counterparts.


2whls3spds said...

About the same approach in the US. They keep mandating safety improvements to roadways and the automobile but do very little to improve the idiot behind the wheel. Driver education and training in the US is a huge joke. 40 hours of basic instruction and you are turned loose on the roads and if you manage to avoid getting caught you probably will never have to take a another test in your live time. Also a license is ridicously cheap. In North Carolina it is $4usd a year!


Unknown said...

I'm quite surprised to see us here (Canada) as high as that. I would have though Belgium to be safer than we are.

Rob Ainsley said...

Yes, but if you rubbish the idea of 'Safety in Numbers' too forcibly, it perpetuates the idea held by many that cycling is dangerous and we should actively discourage people from doing it.

From my viewpoint, which is in the middle of central London's rush hour trying my best to avoid the shit cycle lanes, it feels strongly that safety IS improved by numbers. That's subjective. But subjective safety is important, as we all know.

And yes, planning sea-change, radical overhaul, drastic rethink, blah blah blah, of course, we know that. But how?

Moaning about crap facilities in blogs is all very well (and indeed a necessary and often amusing part of the picture).

Lobbying MPs and writing to councils and going to boring effing meetings is all very well too (and another, less amusing, necessary part of the picture).

But the only way we'll start to break the vicious anti-cyclist circle is by getting more of us on the roads. London is one place where it's happening, mainly - I believe - by the self-sustaining process of more people cycling because they see more people cycling.

So yes, let's be wary of comparing Greenwich with Groningen when it comes to judging effects of cycling critical masses. (And I don't mean 'Critical Masses'.)

But we mustn't be deflected from encouraging people onto bikes.
More people cycling more often, isn't that our aim?

Thanks for thought-provoking stuff as ever, David.

townmouse said...

Hmmm. What about the figures released by the CTC recently showing that within the UK - with more or less the same cycling infrastructure - there is a safety in numbers effect with higher rates of cycling not leading to higher rates of death and serious injury? Sure, safety in numbers isn't everything, but it can't be dismissed altogether - and without numbers of cyclists increasing, there simply won't be the pressure on politicians, nor the overall consensus that will be needed, in order to build the proper infrastructure that's needed. As we just don't have the pragmatic approach of the Dutch to these things, in the UK we're going to have to meet the cycling culture half way...

David Hembrow said...

2whls3spds: Driver education only gets you so far. Dutch drivers are far from perfect. I don't really think their behaviour overall is much different to British drivers. The difference here is that highway improvements are not only aimed at improving motorists convenience and safety, but also at improving cyclists convenience and safety. This reduces the chance for conflict between motorists and cyclists.

Ryan: Belgian drivers have never particularly impressed me, and I suspect they are not so different to Canadian drivers. As the country has four times so many cyclists as Canada, but not the first rate infrastructure to support them, I think their figure is what you might expect.

Rob: Yes, "more people cycling more often" is my aim too. However, I don't think it is right to try to hide the truth when trying to achieve that aim. Unfortunately, the truth is that Britain's roads are getting less safe for cyclists right at the time that the authorities are claiming to have achieved their safest roads ever.

There is the problem. The authorities really are not bothered about cyclists. The level of cycling in London remains somewhere around 3% of journeys. It's about as good as you will get when infrastructure design pays only lip service to bikes. It really doesn't matter how much promotion is done, the "shit cycle lanes" you refer to and the general conditions elsewhere will prevent the majority from ever touching a bike.

Now, 3% is really awful. There is a long long way between that figure and even the lowest figure for any city in NL (the lowest is perhaps Rotterdam with around 20% of all journeys by bike). Many more "more people" need to be attracted to cycling in London than have been attracted already. Many more than can be attracted by a self sustaining process while conditions remain less than pleasant.

I'm afraid that if you want to see London become competitive with Dutch cities you need the infrastructure. There is really no alternative. "Sea-change, radical overhaul, drastic rethink" are exactly what are required.

Townmouse: I don't dismiss "safety in numbers" altogether. It's simply very very much smaller than it is often given credit for within the UK. Unfortunately, it has been jumped on by the anti cycle-path brigade as "proof" that cyclists don't need infrastructure. Long before the CTC report, this has been bandied about for over a decade, and of course going on about this has had no positive effect whatsoever on the cycling rate in that time.

There is an absolutely huge difference in the infrastructure between those countries where cyclists are most numerous and safest and those where they are less safe and less numerous. That, quite simply, is the reason for the difference in level of cycling. We see it time and time again here. When Assen spent a few million Euros on improvements over the last 3 years, the cycling rate rose again despite the population growing, and the city becoming larger in size.

It's about time that British planners and campaigners woke up to what has actually worked here, time and time again. It could work in the UK too. Carrying on their current path is very obviously not working.

I find the CTC report a little unimpressive. Comparing the unitary authority of York with a more normal county is not comparing like with like. Where is Cambridge, which has the highest cycling rate in the UK yet is missing from their report ? The figures for DK vs. NL appear to come from the Danish tourist board.

However, more fundamentally, when you have to argue over stats to convince people to do things, the argument has already been lost. People don't read stats. They simply do what feels safe and is convenient.

Martin Parkinson said...

Although I find your blog very illuminating, and follow it with enjoyment, there is a sense in which it is rather depressing, for the following reason.

You write: “If Britain is to grow its rate of cycling and improve its safety then it needs a radical change to the way that planning is done.” Yes indeedy – but that leaves individuals feeling pretty powerless, because what on earth can we do (even if we join campaigning organisations) that has a real chance of affecting the prevailing planning culture of car-centredness? "Cultures" are very resistant things.

It feels as if, at the grassroots level, UK cycling activists can do little more than prevent things getting even worse – and it’s hard not getting sucked into stupid squabbles with both the daftie petrolheads and each other.

I read around transport issues quite a bit, in what I hope is a fairly intelligent way, but what good does this knowledge do me? What use can I put it to, other than the usual lobbying and petitioning that doesn’t seem to have got us anywhere so far?

Or then again perhaps we’re close to a cultural breakthrough but just can’t see it yet? (I don’t really think that, but I just have to say it to avoid sounding like a complete Eeyore).

Gareth Rees said...

There was another report on a very similar subject published recently by the UK's National Audit Office that basically presented the same view you criticize here, that reducing total casualties is the goal, not casualties per distance travelled. (You can read my criticisms at my blog.)

I agree with your post, but as Martin Parkinson says above, "what on earth can we do?" because what we're doing at the moment is clearly not working. Much of the time we're talking to people who don't listen, campaigning just to stand still.

The Dutch achievements took decades of sustained effort and investment from politicians and civil servants. How did the politicians come to take the view that cycling was worth this kind of political commitment? How did they handle opposition from the general public who just wanted to drive their cars? Is there something we can learn from this history?

David Hembrow said...

Martin, I can't say it isn't rather frustrating. I campaigned for many years in the UK and know exactly what it's like. Arguments between factions amongst cyclists and with motorists take much too much time. Trying to prevent the situation deteriorating takes up virtually all the rest. Frankly, Britain is going nowhere at the moment. I moved to somewhere that I am not only safer, but am considered to have some value as a cyclist.

Personally I think the fight is being fought in completely the wrong way. Present people with something that they want and they will ask for it.

To me, this means showing examples of desirable things. Something that the Netherlands has any amount of so far as cycling is concerned. That is why we run study tours (unlike the tour much publicized recently, ours have nothing to do with a railway company trying to renew its franchise) and post information about such things as children cycling to school, of how city centres and housing estates could look, and spelling out the ways in which cycling saves money and makes people healthier, leads to lower CO2 emissions and contributes to healthier, happier children.

If it were possible to get the argument in the UK moved onto those lines, I think cycling would suddenly be valued higher than it is now.

The reason why I think this approach would work better is that it has already happened. Twice. The renaissance in Dutch cycling the early 1970s came about due to concern about the welfare of Dutch children. At that time, cycling was far less safe, the numbers cycling were down, children were getting fatter etc. It was a similar story in Denmark a few years later.

Of course, you also need effective government who take charge of things and want to improve the life of the ordinary person. So far as I can tell, the last few days of parliament time in the UK have been taken up with trying to determine exactly how much corruption is OK rather than actually running the country...

Gareth: re: "sustained effort" You're right. Once the Dutch made the decision to do it, they have indeed sustained the same policies for decades. Mind you, the UK government has been just as consistent at promoting driving.

There is actually very little policy which could be considered to be "anti-car" in this country. There's no congestion charge as an extra "tax on drivers", and the proposed road charging scheme is to be revenue neutral - it just encourages people not to drive. Everyone's welcome to own a car, there is plenty of car parking virtually everywhere, and often it's free of charge. However, cycling is made more attractive still.

That's the key (hence the "carrot or stick" posts). People who drive today need to be encouraged out of their cars by something better, not whacked with a stick and made enemies out of.

Cycle campaigners should never criticise people who are simply responding to the conditions around them which make driving the easiest, fastest, safest way of getting about. For example, all those cars on the school run exist because people care for their children. Show them a better example and they'll perhaps want the same for their children.

Anyway, to come to the point. The Dutch approach was not one of confrontation but of opportunity. The message was not the negative "you'll have to pay to drive" but the positive "your children will be more healthy". Sugar catches more flies than vinegar. Much the same thing has continued ever since. Cycling is so very pleasant here, so very attractive, that 93% of the population are now regular cyclists and only 7% are "seldom or never" to be seen on a bike.

Cycling campaigners should never align themselves with anti car measures. It erects a barrier between "them" and "us", making it difficult for people who currently drive to see cycling as a good option.

Some of the comments here are worth reading too.

Anonymous said...

No doubt auto-centrism, once established, is difficult to reverse. Any ideas to support alternatives are typically met with polite laughter.

In the USA, the DOTs have a system in place that can react quickly when stimulus dollars are dangled. Alternative modes of travel like light rail is unprepared for this fight for dollars/support as explained by Goodspeed's remarks in Planetizen:

It seems to me that cyclist have any a steeper mountain to climb as half the current group of cyclists see no need for "special" infrastructure. Potential riders who believe that greater safety is needed (before they will use their bikes) are certainly the silent majority.

My experiences with families that prefer to cycle have moved back to Germany from the USA as they perceive (rightly or wrongly) that "cycling in the USA is too dangerous". They use to cycle their children, their most precious assets, to school and I appreciated cycling the roads with them.

Gareth Rees said...

The renaissance in Dutch cycling the early 1970s came about due to concern about the welfare of Dutch childrenBut this can't be the whole story, because we have the same problem in the UK but the political response has been completely different. (That is, politicians and the media interpret the obesity epidemic as being all about diet rather than the fact that we've made our cities so dangerous that we dare not allow children out of the house on their own any more.)

Do you know if there's an English-language history about the origins of the Dutch cycling renaissance?

There is actually very little policy which could be considered to be "anti-car" in this country.This is about how policies are presented and interpreted. The same policy to introduce 20 mph speed limits could be spun as being for the sake of children's health or a dreadful imposition on the rights of motorists.

For example, the Netherlands in 1992 adopted a rule of strict liability in cases where the driver of a motor vehicle collides with a pedestrian or cyclist. I don't know how this rule is perceived in the Netherlands, but in the UK when a petition was presented calling for a similar law, the government response spun the request as one that would "unfairly penalise" motorists.

David Hembrow said...

Gareth: You're right that a lot of it is about spin. However, complaints from motorists seem rare. There were not even any complaints when it was announced that the car parking at the local railway station is to be reduced by about a quarter to make room for more bikes.

Society here is less fragmented, which certainly helps. There is a lot more interest in the common good. Strict liability is an example of something to encourage civilised behaviour, and it is presented as such here.

There's an interesting short history here. It's one of several articles pointed to by the articles page on our website.

spiderleggreen said...

I don't mind if your blogs are "depressing...". I'm happy for the perspective. I just take what I can use and leave the rest. While I do admit that cycling in my city leaves much to be desired(compared to a select few other cities), I see things headed in the right direction. Just keep calling it how you see!

I've heard that while in America, if a car hits a ped, they are automatically at fault, but in the UK it's almost the opposite. Is that true?

cocosolis said...

I agree with both David's presentation of the facts (and the need to avoid hiding these facts) but also Rob's point about encouraging cycling despite them. That said, I was in London last Mon&Tue and came back to Manchester thinking it's not so grim up North after all! Around the Euston / Bloomsbury area there's many more cycle lanes than anywhere in Manchester, yet weak enforcement means they don't amount to that much.

Ian Walker said...

As I understand it, the original Safety in Numbers idea, which is what the CTC are referring to, comes from an analysis by Jacobsen (Jacobsen, P.L. (2003). Safety in numbers: More walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling. Injury Prevention, 9, 205-209.)

Jacobsen showed that in any given location, if you increase the number of pedestrians or cyclists then the accident rate doesn't increase as fast as the number of vulnerable road users. So his safety in numbers idea doesn't really lend itself to international comparisons; he was just talking about what happens within a given country - or perhaps more likely, a given town - as the number of cyclists increases.

If his analysis is correct (and I don't see any real reason to doubt it) then there's no reason that increasing the number of cyclists in the UK wouldn't lead to better safety for all of them. However, I totally agree with your interpretation of why the UK's casualty rates have been falling: to a first approximation everybody is in a metal cage.

Chris Hutt said...

I haven't done my homework on this subject yet, but my intitial impression is that some people are confusing correlation with causation.

There may well be a correlation between (a) higher cycling rates and (b) lower cycling casualties per distance travelled, but it doesn't follow that (b) follows from (a). It might be that (a) follows from (b) or that both derive from other factors (c), or a mixture of all those relationships.

To save me having to research this, does anybody know of any research to suggest causation rather than correlation?

Anonymous said...

"Arguments between factions amongst cyclists and with motorists take much too much time."

I'm beginning to see similar problems here, where infighting weakens people fighting for change. Our local airport recently tried to make it happen, by suggesting two schemes which would affect two different villages in the hope they would fight each other, but fortunately the leader of the local environmental group pulled all the villages in the area together to make a united front.
Maybe we should start by agreeing to have truce on the subject of helmets and other things, and stop going out to annoy people who are driving, and then focus our energiy on specific issues.

Chris Peck said...

Hi David,

CTC's full report, including the data for Cambridgeshire (no KSI data for Cambridge) is here: scores very highly. York is higher because it has the highest level of cycling, but still only suffers from an average of 10 KSIs per year, whereas other areas, with very little cycle commuting, suffer the same levels.

We acknowledge in the report that safety in numbers may appear for various reasons, one of which is the fact that where there is more cycling, local authorities may do more to provide better facilities for cyclists, which may mean your cycle path paradise, or it may mean slower speeds and reduced motor traffic volume.

You say that the same effect won't happen in London. But it has - cycling has gone up 91% in ten years and cycle casualties are down by 33% since the 1994-98 average.

You also quote the Guardian article, which came from an NAO report into cyclists safety. They suggest that there has been an 11% increase in cycling KSIs between 2004 and 2007. Casualty data should only ever be taken against a three year rolling average.

As we told the Guardian:

Using the proper measures for cycle use and injuries shows that since 1994-98 – the baseline the government measure injuries against – cycling has increased by 7% (2005-07) but deaths have fallen by 23%, while KSIs have fallen by 34%.

The European numbers come from Eurobarometer, an annual survey of EU citizens.

Safety in numbers is a correlation. There are obviously lots of other factors involved. The point of it is to get over local authorities concerns that if they get more people cycling they will inevitably get more people injured and killed.

We also want to change the way the authorities measure injuries and start to look at risk, not just numbers. After all, presently the Netherlands (180 or so cyclists killed each year) is, in some ways, more 'dangerous' than Britain (130 cyclists killed each year). Of course that's nonsense, but that's the measure we use at the moment.

Chris Peck

David Hembrow said...

Hi Chris, while many of the comments on this article have picked up on your report, and I've responded to them, it was not actually the subject of the blog post. Rather, the differing attitudes to road safety were the point of the post.

It is my view that without changes to infrastructure, Britain will simply never achieve a high cycling rate.

For as long as I remember, there have been cycle campaigners in the UK claiming an increase in the cycling rate, and pointing out that cycling is not particularly dangerous. I used to be one of them. However, I had the realisation some years ago that no-one starts cycling merely because of statistics.

In reality, apart from occasional blips, the rate of cycling in the UK has been in a long term decline for the last 50 years. Over those years, the conditions on the streets have become less and less pleasant for cycling.

Even if it were true that safety came only from numbers (which you presumbly don't believe either, having been here and seen the difference in infrastructure design), Britain simply can't achieve the numbers necessary to achieve that level of safety because the experience of cycling is simply too off-putting for the majority to take part.

That's the crux of the issue. Convincing local authorities to get people onto bikes isn't enough. Even if they want to, they can't convince people to do it. What you actually need is infrastructure which makes cycling into an attractive option.

You're right to say that comparing absolute numbers of cyclists killed is a nonsense. By that measure, the safest country for cyclists would be one where no-one cycled at all. However, that is in fact returning to the original point of the blog post.

British road design excludes what cyclists need. This has resulted in such low levels of cycling that no matter how dangerous it became, cyclists would make up just a small part of the overall casualty figures.

Overall road safety in the UK is good, but the result is reliant on having low levels of vulnerable road users. The opposite is true of NL. It's even safer for all - but with high levels of vulnerable road users.

Florin said...

Romania on the 28th. Not bad considering that we are before U.S. Table could represent living standards in each country, with some exceptions

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