Pedalling fictions

The Times and the Daily Mail this morning have both seized on a single aspect of the latest figures for road casualties (2005), released yesterday by the Department for Transport, to report that cycling deaths have gone up by 10%. Both titles blame the growing number of novice cyclists on the roads for the rise.

Quite apart from the fact that this explanation is completely speculative, the actual numbers underpinning the headlines bear some closer examination. It’s not as boring as it sounds, promise.

First, what that 10% represents in absolute terms is an additional 14 cyclist deaths in 2005, up from 134 to 148. Of course, every death is deeply regrettable, and a human tragedy for the victim’s family and friends, and so what I am about to say is not to minimise that. But an extra 14 deaths is not very significant; it falls within the bounds of standard deviation. To take an example: in London in 2004, the number of cyclist deaths fell to just eight – but this was a rogue figure, because the annual average is around 20 (in fact, the number bounced back to 21 in 2005). In other words, while 10% sounds a dramatic and scary increase, it is highly misleading: that additional 14 may well prove to be no more than a statistical blip.

More importantly, this 10% increase of cyclist deaths nationally needs to be seen in the context of overall cycling casualties. This total (which includes killed, seriously injured and slightly injured) was 16,561 – down from the previous year, as it has been for the past decade and more. In fact, the DfT’s baseline figure for road casualties is an average based on the years 1994-1998, according to which there were 24,385 cycling casualties every year (and the baseline average for deaths was 186). The clear evidence, then, is that cycling is considerably safer than it was 10 years ago – you are roughly a third less likely to be hurt on your bike now than you were then.

This, by the way, compares very favourably with other types of road casualty. The number of passengers killed in private cars every year is stubbornly stuck at the 1,600-1,700 level it was at in the mid-1990s. And the number of motorcyclists killed (569 in 2005) is more than 20% up on where it was then. Oddly enough, neither of these frightening facts is reported by the Times or the Mail.

The much more important story, which rarely gets told in the face of shabby, irresponsible media manipulation of the public perception that riding a bike is dangerous, is simply this: the more people cycle, the safer it gets. The best contemporary example of this is in Greater London (mainly because the figures are available, whereas equivalent numbers are not for the UK as a whole): from 2000 to 2005, cycle use in the capital rose by 72%; in the same period, the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured fell by 42%. Now who said stats were dull? The moral is, ignore the horror fiction and join the two-wheeled throng: the more, the merrier.

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