Cycle Casualties: The true cause

Cycle Casualties: The true cause

Beware statistics!

Recent newspaper publicity suggests that cycling has become dramatically more hazardous. This claim is based on year on year Department of Transport figures: a comparison between 2010 and 2011.

The DoT  includes a caveat in its Report to the effect that ‘no single quarter’s figures should be taken in isolation, especially if they appear to show a change in trend, as there are quarter to quarter fluctuations particularly in the smaller categories of road user’.

Some recent reporting seems to have overlooked this warning.

Taken over a far longer period, 15 years from the 1994/8 average, there’s been a reduction of 44{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} in cycling fatalities, despite an increase of 20{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} in miles cycled.

The 1994-98 average was 24385 reported fatal or injury cycle accidents from the 2.5 billion miles travelled.

By 2010 the casualties reduced to 17185 over 3.1 billion miles travelled. There was a 1{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} increase in pedal cycle traffic 2009-10.

Of these, 1088 cited ‘cyclist entering road from pavement’ and 381 as ‘cyclist wearing dark clothing at night’ as contributory causes. Salutary lesson.

Historically:

           Vehicles licensed  Cyclists killed
1950            4.4m                   805
1960            9.4m                   679
1970             15m                   373
1980          19.2m                   302
1990          24.7m                   256
2000          28.9m                   127
2010          34.2m                   111 

So perhaps a consideration of the wider picture is in order before we jump to the conclusion that taking to two wheels ranks alongside what statistically is the most dangerous recreational activity currently: cheerleading.

Collisions are not chance events

That said, there are still far, far too many incidents in which cyclists are needlessly injured.

Any accident, injury or nor, is one too many because its going to raise the apprehension level in the cyclist involved and be a potential barrier to their continued participation or the uptake of cycling by a friend or relative.

These are collisions and they have a cause. They are only accidents in the sense that, in the main, they are not intentional.  An accident is defined as a chance event, something which happens without assignable cause.

During the course of investigating hundreds of incidents involving cyclists and other road users over the past twenty years, almost none have turned out to be without an identifiable cause.

Thus, the overwhelming majority of collisions in which cyclists are involved are not chance events but are foreseeable and therefore preventable.

The costs of an injury collision in human, social and economic terms are staggering.  If the collision is the stone thrown into a pond, the ripples will, potentially, affect the victim, their family, friends and relations, witnesses, the Police, the ambulance and hospital services, consultants and therapists, the insurers, accident investigators, lawyers and the courts. The ripples may take years before they finally vanish. Sometimes, if the victim has been maimed, they never do.

The causes of these collisions are a combination of inattention, impatience, attitude and a lack of anticipation of the road conditions or foresight of the consequences of a collision. The most frequently reported contributory factor is ‘failed to look properly’; ‘failure to judge the other person’s path or speed’ was the next.

The five main circumstances of collisions are roundabouts, junctions on the left, on-coming vehicles turning right, overtaking (or more accurately, a failure to overtake) and vehicle doors opening.

Less common is inappropriate speed which is usually a result of a failure to anticipate a situation which might develop.

The Trucking Issue

Those of a certain age may recall the Trucking Song (and accompanying video) performed by one R Atkinson and others (including a number of hedgehogs) in the 1980s. The ‘trophy’ stickers affixed to the cab door included, as well the prickly animal, a row of cycles. In some ways heartening to think (I hope!) that this wouldn’t be considered quite as comical 25 years later.

Although the majority of collisions involve cars, it’s unsurprising,  that while the number of incidents involving large goods vehicles are less, the proportion of deaths and grievous injuries is  13{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} (cars) compared with 31{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} (lgv). 

While it ought to be (fairly) obvious that a LGV is a ‘dangerous substance’ for all kinds of reasons (size, weight, exposed parts, absence of deformable structure, driver insulation, noise) and therefore something to which an even wider berth ought to be given, the consequences of irrational (careless, aggressive, dangerous or reckless) driving is inevitably going to have dramatically more serious consequences.

The road haulage industry is becoming ever more monitored and regulated; currently it’s Certificates of Professional Competence for both new and existing drivers that are ruffling feathers.

Under the Driver CPC, almost all C and D licence holders must complete 35 hours of periodic training every 5 years to maintain their Driver Qualification Card. If the relevant licence was held on 10 September 2009, the deadline is September 2014.

There has been a slow take up.  This may be due simply to inertia. However, the proportion of drivers currently lacking qualifications equivalent to five good GCSEs is almost double that of UK industry generally.

Given the consequences of forty tonnes getting away at even 40 mph, there must be grounds for a scale of penalties commensurate with the havoc an LGV can wreak.

Sadly, some specifics.

Ten seconds thought brings to mind three fatals, two serious (head) injury incidents and one potentially fatal crush collision all involving ‘vocational’ licence holders, as truck and bus drivers may be called. Four involved misjudged overtakes, one distraction/failure to observe and one failure to anticipate coupled with excess speed.

Of the overtakes, one was pure impatience. A bulk tanker driver decided to try to pass a tandem where there was simply insufficient room in the prevailing conditions resulting in a dismount and the death of the ‘stoker’. The Coroner’s inquest included the astonishing finding that the cyclists ought to have been using a cycle lane marked on the pavement.  The inference was that by not using the facility the deceased and his companion had contributed to the tragedy. The implied suggestion that it’s somehow ‘open season’ for cyclists not using a cycle lane (no matter how inappropriate) was fortunately reversed in the civil damages claim brought by the family of the deceased.  Worryingly the Police did not prosecute the tanker driver……

Two ABI (acquired brain injury) cases involved LGVs overtaking cyclists on a dual carriageway. In one, the driver admitted to seeing the cyclist but inexplicably did not attempt to move from lane 1 into lane 2 when overtaking, even though lane 2 was clear of traffic. This was not inattention; straightforward idleness combined with a lamentably dismissive attitude to the consequences of a collision. Four years on the cyclist (who is permanently afflicted) is not going to return to his former employment as a systems analyst.

The second involved a cyclist on an urban dual carriageway in Bristol (who had been there to be seen for nearly half a minute a minute) yet the LGV driver was paying more attention to what was happening on the nearby airfield.
Finally, a case in the courts currently involves a 7.5 tonne LGV attempting to overtake a cyclist on a roundabout, both parties aiming for the same (the first) exit. The cyclist was somehow caught up by the overtaking vehicle and is very lucky to be alive due to serious crush injuries.

Conclusion: no amount of sensors, warning buzzers, mirrors or under-ride protection would have made one jot of difference in any of these collisions.

Solutions?

What would have made the difference is attitude, education, awareness, patience and an understanding of the consequences of colliding with a cyclist. Three lives lost, three irreparably changed. OK, so in a couple maybe the driver felt the cyclist was in the wrong. That’s a reason to expose him (all these cases involved males) to the risk of death or serious, life changing injury? Something to include in the CPC syllabus perhaps?

The penalty in these circumstances has to reflect the irresponsible failure to contemplate the consequences of a particular piece of driving. If that means the loss of a vocational licence, so be it. If the drivers knew their licences were on the line, there’d be a change in attitude. It worked with drink driving.

Misconceptions

The most frequently reported contributory factor (in 38{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} of all incidents reported to the Police) was failing to look properly. However, cyclists are by no means absolved from a degree of contribution here as a quarter of accidents involving cyclists included an allegation of poor observations by the cyclist.

Cyclists’ main cause of their own downfall is entering the road from the pavement without adequate checks closely followed by wearing dark clothing at night. Really.

I shudder at the degree of protection some of us seem to believe accrues through use of ASL’s and on-carriageway cycle lanes. Vehicles vault crash barriers; a bit of contrastingly coloured road surface is not going to protect anyone. Use them by all means, but do not develop a sense on invulnerability. If a driver wants to make a bit of progress or avoid a collision with another vehicle, then how persuasive is that lane going to be? So anticipation and observations must never lapse.

Helmets

In terms of injury, 37{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} of cyclists admitted to hospital had head or face injuries. In comparison, motorcyclists were 16{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} head and face.  While accepting the fundamental differences in design criteria between cycle and motorcycle helmets, there’s an inescapable truth here. The only higher group was pedestrians.

In Bikeability training, I’d prefer to teach a child without a helmet than with a badly adjusted or poor fitting one. The child holding the bars with one hand and steadying the helmet with the other is not a receptive pupil! So buy a helmet, use a helmet, but most importantly, take the time and trouble to learn how to fit it, adjust it and maintain its fitting. It may take an hour. Big deal. You’re dead for much longer.

40{9b4a2c8832b2482ca7eb937f6bfa363e1f3f7cb05e1b42927da41c9eadde8c32} of the youngsters (0 to 15) had head/face injuries. Given the impact that such injuries may have upon education and development, one has to think very carefully before discarding children’s helmets, cool or no.

And the Answers are…..?

Cyclists  cannot argue that they are wholly wronged by the rest of the road using population. Defensive cycling if practised together with a sensible appraisal of one’s own well being (clothing, lights) will go a long way to ensuring survival. It’s the incident completely out of the cyclist’s hands which are the most worrying. Reduction here comes down to training, education, tolerance and penalties.

The metropolitan areas: Greater London, Manchester, West Midlands and West Yorkshire  make up four of the five locations with the highest casualty rate, but against that factors including population, road type, miles covered and average speed/journey time need to be factored in before one area can be identified as “more dangerous” than another.

The combination of high traffic volume, low average speed and consequent high journey times probably holds the key to explaining increased risk.

Bear in mind the cause “failed to look properly”; when traffic speeds are slow due to congestion, impatience sets in. Manoeuvres are made more hastily to make that bit of progress. Unfortunately, given high traffic density, vision is often restricted. Therefore, there is less time to take information in and a restricted field of vision from which to take it. At 15 mph a cyclist is travelling at 22 feet per second. That’s one and a half car’s lengths. The average reaction time is between one and two seconds.

Not too difficult, therefore to understand how collisions occur in areas where visibility is restricted.

One answer to reducing casualty rates must therefore be educating road users, especially those in cars, buses and LGVs, to anticipate and to hold back. The increase in journey time by seconds or minutes  is not great in the overall scheme. The attempt to save that time may (and does) have tragic consequences.

Give Cyclists a Second’s Chance.