The latest official figures from the government’s Transport Scotland agency reveal that there was a 13% jump in the number of cyclists suffering serious injuries in 2011, compared to 2010. There was a similar 12% increase in the number of seriously injured pedestrians.
This has prompted a barrage of angry demands from politicians, transport campaigners, cycling and walking groups for Scottish ministers to boost funding for cycleways and footpaths, better roads and tougher speed limits. Otherwise, they warn, more cyclists and pedestrians will be needlessly injured or killed.
The revelations come at the end of a week that saw two of the UK’s most famous cyclists knocked off their bikes. On Wednesday evening, Bradley Wiggins, the winner of the Tour De France and a four-time Olympic champion, was hit by a van near Wigan in Lancashire.
He spent a night in hospital, and was discharged with a bruised hand and ribs. Coincidentally, the head coach for Britain’s cycling team, Shane Sutton, was in a collision with a car in Manchester on Thursday morning, putting him in hospital with bleeding on the brain and a fractured cheekbone.
The two crashes highlighted the dangers that cyclists face, and led to multiple calls for better safety provisions in England. But the new figures unearthed by the Sunday Herald show that there are also escalating and alarming risks in Scotland.
The accident figures for cyclists and pedestrians were buried in a statistical publication last month from Transport Scotland. Its headlines highlighted downward trends in car casualties, and reassuring long-term trends in road injuries and deaths.
But the report’s detailed tables also disclosed that the number of cyclists seriously injured on Scottish roads rose from 138 in 2010 to 156 in 2011, reversing the downward trend of previous years. The number of cyclists killed in each of the last two years was the same – seven.
Similarly, the number of pedestrians suffering serious injuries increased from 457 in 2010 to 513 in 2011. The number of pedestrians killed fell slightly from 47 to 43.
At the same time, the number of people travelling in cars who suffered serious injuries dropped 16% from 902 to 756, while the number of motorcyclists with serious injuries fell 8% from 319 to 293 (see table below).
Experts point out that the increase in cycling injuries far outstrips the estimated 1-2% increase in the number of cyclists on the roads. They also suggest that serious accidents are more frequent on fast rural roads than on slow city streets.
Although cyclists’ behaviour is sometimes flawed, evidence suggests that drivers are more often to blame for accidents because they frequently fail to see cyclists. An analysis of cycle injuries for the UK Department for Transport found that two-thirds of crashes involving adult cyclists were said by police to be the fault of drivers, with just one in five blamed solely on the cyclist.
Alison Johnstone, the Green MSP who co-convenes the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on cycling, accused Scottish ministers of failing to tackle the road conditions that were putting cyclists and pedestrians at risk. “To see so many more people seriously injured while on their bike or while trying to cross a street is shocking,” she said.
“I hope it makes the SNP government realise that its response has been weak – nothing more than a fig leaf. It's incredibly frustrating to see ministers yet again reviewing an aspirational cycle action plan rather than delivering real action.”
Johnstone demanded firm timescales, ring-fenced funding, and the reversal of cuts to council road maintenance budgets so that dangerous potholes could be repaired. She also wanted dedicated cycle paths between small towns and stricter speed limits.
She added: “We should consider the kind of road user hierarchy that is commonplace elsewhere in Europe and assumes liability on the part of the heavier vehicle. This would dramatically improve driver behaviour and make cyclists take more care around pedestrians.”
Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland, described the current level of funding for walking and cycling as “hopeless”. He warned: “Accidents to cyclists and pedestrians will continue to increase while the Scottish and UK governments give too much priority to the motor vehicle over other forms of travel.”
Cycling groups cautioned that the Scottish government would fail to meet its target for one in every ten journeys to be made by bike in 2020 unless funding was boosted from just one per cent of the transport budget to more than five per cent. Without that, said David Brennan from the campaign group, Pedal on Parliament, “people will be killed and injured needlessly on our roads.”
According to John Lauder, director of the transport charity, Sustrans Scotland, the increase in serious injuries required an urgent response from ministers. “Every death on our roads is unnecessary and tragic, and there is much more that needs to be done to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable road users,” he said.
Cycling Scotland, an agency funded by the Scottish government to promote cycling, pointed out that accident rates were lower than they were ten years ago and that cycling in Scotland was “statistically” twice as safe as in the rest of the UK. “But this increase in accident rates needs to be taken very seriously and all possible measures should be put in place to ensure we return to the downward trend in cycling injuries,” said the agency’s chief executive, Ian Aitken.
Transport Scotland accepted that there was still “much to do” to improve the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. “Since 2007 we have invested over £83 million on promoting active travel and improving facilities and infrastructure,” said a spokeswoman for the agency.
“Earlier this year we announced an additional £20 million for infrastructure to support active travel over the next three years. In September an additional £6 million over this year and next was announced for infrastructure, cycle training and road safety messages.”
The spokeswoman pointed out that ministers had chaired a series of special cycle safety meetings and were refreshing Scotland’s cycling action plan. “We will continue to encourage local authorities to make cycling a priority in their areas, and promote more 20 mph zones in urban areas,” she added.
The pain that accidents cause
Craig Jenkins is still in pain every day. He dislocated his shoulder and ruptured his ligaments just before Christmas last year when he was flung off his bike after being forced into a pothole by a taxi.
He can longer properly do his job as a postal worker, and, aged just 38 with a four-year-old son, is now facing the prospect of being medically retired. He can’t ride his bike any more because of pain in his hands, and has been obliged to buy a car.
“I had many near death experiences before actually getting hurt,” he told the Sunday Herald. “It’s dangerous out there. You really need to be out on the bike to see what you are up against with regard to the quality of road surfaces, cycling infrastructure and standard of driving.”
Jenkins was cycling to work from Duddingston in Edinburgh early on 23 December 2011 when a taxi sped past him at a pedestrian crossing on Peffermill Road, forcing him to steer straight into a deep hole at the side of the road.
“Next thing I knew was my head, in a helmet, striking the road and I ended up in the middle of the road,” he said. “As I lay there, I saw the taxi simply continue on.” He had to go to hospital, have an operation and take three months off work.
“Unfortunately I have had complications from the surgery with suspected nerve damage,” he said. “I had further tests last week and am waiting on the results, though it’s now looking like it could be permanent.”
It was no wonder that people were scared to cycle to work, he argued. “We can’t simply keep designing cities around cars. Much of the present infrastructure seems to have been thought out by people who have never cycled.”
Mark Findlay, a 40-year-old computer manager at the University of Edinburgh, was cycling home through South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth on 16 February this year when a car came out of a side street and hit him. “This is really going to hurt”, he thought, as he was thrown through the air.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I got away with a sore backside, bruised leg, and some severe road rash and bruising on my left arm.” But the accident left him mentally scarred.
“I was so frightened of the bike that I made excuses for a couple of weeks afterwards as to why I couldn't cycle,” he recalled. “I was a nervous wreck.”
Kirsten Hey, a 42-year-old occupational therapist with the City of Edinburgh Council, was struck by a van in December 2008 while she was cycling along the city’s Duddingston Road. “He said he didn’t see me,” she said. “My arm still hurts now when I think about it.”
She started using more off-road paths, but has since twice come off her bike in icy conditions, severely injuring her pelvis last December. “I’m still in pain and my hip joint will eventually develop arthritis,” she said.
If the idea was to make cycling safer by encouraging cyclists to use off-road paths, they should be gritted in the winter, she argued. “Sometimes it seems you just can’t win,” she sighed. “Edinburgh’s supposed to be a model cycling city, but that’s a joke.”
(Thanks to citycyclingedinburgh for help finding cyclists.)
Seriously injured on Scotland’s roads
mode of travel / seriously injured in 2010 / seriously injured in 2011 / % changepedal cycle / 138 / 156 / +13%
pedestrian / 457 / 513 / +12%
car / 902 / 756 / -16%
motor cycle / 319 / 293 / -8%
other / 152 / 157 / +3%
all / 1,968 / 1,875 / -5%
source: Transport Scotland