Study suggests ‘safety in numbers’ works for England’s cyclists

12.00 | 17 November 2016 | | 4 comments

A new report suggests that ‘safety in numbers’ applies to cyclists here in England as well as other parts of the world.

A number of international studies have identified the effect known as ‘safety in numbers’ (SIN), which suggests that when there are more cyclists on the road, the rate of injury collisions involving cyclists reduces.

Using data from all 319 English local authority areas, the new report by Road Safety Analysis (RSA) now suggests that SIN can be seen in this country.

The study shows that annually as many as one in 20 cyclists can be involved in a collision in areas where there are relatively few bikes on the road, compared to one in 500 in areas where cycling is more popular.

The report concluded that northern towns and cities where levels of cycling are low – including Rotherham, Chesterfield, Leeds and Liverpool – have the most dangerous roads for cyclists.

On the flip side, the research found that many parts of the south and Midlands were safest, including places such as Lincoln, Oxford and Cambridge.

The report does however warn that more cyclists on the roads will result in an increase in the absolute number of injuries to cyclists unless significant measures to improve infrastructure are put in place at the same time.

The results of the study, which was co-authored by RSA’s Dr George Ursachi and Richard Owen, were presented at the National Road Safety Conference in Bristol on 16 November. The presentation will be available to watch via the conference website in the coming days.

The report describes the findings as “very encouraging and are in line with the expectations based on previous evidence from international studies”.

Talking to The Times, Richard Owen said drivers adapt when there are more cyclists around, adding: “They learn how to drive safely around cyclists and expect to encounter them at junctions and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

“Another possibility is that more drivers are likely to be cyclists and are much more sympathetic to the safety concerns of fellow road users.”

RSA is keen to develop the methodology further and ultimately create a model that will help to predict injury rates based on changes in cycling levels.


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    The report makes a lot of sense, including the fact that more cyclists would result in more cycling deaths and injuries – there’s no getting away from the fact that a bicycle offers no protection in an accident regardless of fault – so from a safety point of view, cycling is best avoided.

    Paul Biggs, Staffordshire
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    I think it’s important that the issue of ‘absolute numbers’ is seen in the proper context of the net gain to be achieved from a population that routinely cycles.

    Collision risk is only one part of a discussion that includes the health benefits to be derived by both the individual cyclist (who must balance their collision risk with the overall net effect on their personal health) and society (balancing its investment in cycling infrastructure against the overall gain derived from healthier individuals and communities).

    I think this is a helpful report in two key respects. Firstly, it leads to subsequent questions about what else we can learn about motorist / cyclist interaction in areas with different road user population mixes. Secondly, it opens up a very pertinent question about what we are prepared to risk in order to achieve the health gains derived from regular exercise – and how we, as professionals, can help individuals make rational and informed choices about their long term health and lifestyles against the backdrop of the very real apprehension they feel about using the roads as a non-motorised traveller.

    Jeremy, Devon
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    I think we should look at the positive side of the research. The message of the research can be read more like ‘Let’s look closer where, how and with whom can we make cycling safer for cyclists’. There’s no moral dilemma in doing your best to improve people’s lives and health. The dilemma appears more when we take a stand without analysing the issue, when we encourage or discourage something without taking into account all the aspects (like health or pollution and the number of lives that can be saved by improving those areas) or when we lie in or hide our findings; and it’s not the case here.

    George, England
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    So another moral dilemma: should we sacrifice more cyclists (“more cyclists on the roads will result in an increase in the absolute number of injuries to cyclists”) so that the headline rate of injuries per cyclist becomes more politically palatable?

    Charles, England
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