Recent reports have pointed out that there is a welcome downward trend in cyclist deaths in the UK. The numbers come from Office of National Statistics report. However, some reporters have gone further, and claimed that this is evidence of a "safety in numbers" effect, in that fewer injuries are occurring because the number of cycle journeys made in the UK is growing.
Unfortunately, that conclusion is without any evidence to support it. For as long as I can remember, cycling organisations in the UK have made regular claims that cycling is booming. It may be more palatable news than reporting a decline, but actually there has been a downward trend since the 1950s, and cycling currently bumps along at probably the lowest figure it can reach. Currently about 1.6% of journeys in the UK are by bike - about the number you get anywhere where cycling is under stress. It will never be 0% because there are always bicycle fanatics1 who will cycle whatever the conditions, and always a few people for whom cycling is the only viable option due to its low cost.
So what is 1.6% ? Well, as you see above, the average British person makes 16 journeys per year by bike. That's as many as the average resident of Groningen makes in 11 days. Of course these journeys are not spread evenly through the population. The fanatics cycle much more than that, and to make up for it, 70 % of the British population doesn't cycle at all. Not even once per year.
Note that the article referred to above, and the ONS document, both claim there has been a "17% increase on the previous year" in cycle journeys based merely on looking at the numbers for 2007 and 2008. However, the number of cycle journeys per year are reported as being between 14 and 16 for every year between 2002 and the present. This is just statistical noise, not a trend.
I suspect that there are two reasons for the apparent improvement in safety of cyclists in the UK. One reason is that the demographics have become yet more narrow, leaving just the fanatics, who tend to be experienced, cycling.
Fewer British children are cycling, and children have never been the safest of road users (indeed, the UK's record on road safety for children is one of the worst in Europe).
Perhaps this second set of numbers from the same document better explains the increased apparent safety of cyclists in the UK. While no figures are given for children cycling to school (it's been very low for many years, and the document notes that "Other" generally means a local bus), fewer children than ever now walk to school. Indeed, the most common way for primary school children to get to school in the UK now is by car.
Reading the document you find such passages as "The majority of children aged 7 to 10 were usually accompanied to school by an adult in 2008 (86 per cent), an increase from 78 per cent in 2002." and that the main reason for accompanying children was "traffic danger (58 per cent)."
It seems reasonable to assume that a similar change has occurred in child cycling.
Others have noted that teenage girls hardly cycle at all in the UK. Other groups who feel less than confident on Britain's subjectively unsafe roads are also less likely to cycle now than in the past, or in countries such as the Netherlands where children have a remarkable degree of independence through cycling and virtually everyone cycles.
Context. How are cyclists doing relative to other road users ?
We must also put the improvement in safety for Britain's cyclists in the context of an overall improvement in road safety in the UK.
Britain's roads have become safer for all modes of transport, and actually cycling's improvement is smaller as a proportion (roughly 40% of the risk there used to be) than most other modes (driving now has 30% of the risk it used to have).
Compared with driving, cycling now has a risk 12.7 times as large per km travelled, when it was just 9.3 times as risky in 1981. So, to answer the question posed at the top, cycling in Britain is now safer overall than it used to be, but it's less safe than it used to be relative to driving.
We touched on school travel above, and I think it's interesting to compare the high profile that Britain has achieved internationally based on claims to have achieved changes in school travel ("The UK is a world-leader in terms of School Travel Plan (STP) development and implementation") with the reality of how walking to school has declined in the country. The comparison with the Dutch situation is stark. Words from government aren't enough. What is needed is the infrastructure which makes people feel safe when walking or cycling, which makes it an attractive and convenient thing to do.
Streets in these two countries look completely different and that's why people's behaviour is different.
I've pointed out before that Britain's overall record on road safety may be good, but it's not been achieved in the same way as the Dutch have achieved their even better record.
You can read more on the effect of British policy on children.
The British government reports that "The number of pedal cyclists killed rose by 10 per cent from 107 in 2011 to 118 in 2012. In addition, the number of pedal cyclists reported to the police as seriously injured in a road accident increased by 4 per cent to 3,222. There is a well-established upward trend in pedal cyclist casualties; this is eighth year that the number of seriously injured cyclist casualties has
increased." (thanks to GB Cycling Embassy)
True improvements in cycling safety in the UK will result from building a proper network for cyclists, not through wishful thinking about safety in numbers.
1Don't be offended. I number myself amongst the fanatics.