Are London streets now less dangerous for cycling?

The startling fall by 28% in the number of cyclists injured last year enlivened the Mayor's press release announcing an ongoing Operation Safeway to reduce road crime.

Journalists and politicians love to over-dramatise any rapid change in statistics, especially in contentious subjects like the danger to people cycling in London. Campaigners have always argued that cycling casualties should be measured as a rate, comparing the number injured against the rise in the number of people cycling. Commenting on the bare numbers has tended to overstate the danger and put the focus on the victim rather than the causes of injury.

Our chart shows the changes in the serious injury rate including fatalities, red line, while the dots show a three year rolling average to give a clearer view of any real changes in the level of danger on the roads.

It is very heartening that the serious casualty rate has fallen. It is also welcome that now the Mayor is talking about casualty rates and not just overall numbers. There was no increase in cycling in 2013 compared to 2012  and the serious injury rate fell 28% while fatalities stayed the same and the slight injury rate rose by 5%.

The serious injury casualty rate was almost the lowest ever recorded. The serious injury numbers do vary in an inconsistent way, between 2009 and 2012 the serious injury rate had increased 37% with actual serious injuries up 56%.  So while the fall between 2012 and 2013 is good news it only recovers some of the ground lost over the previous 3 years.

Normal practice is to describe a casualty rate including fatalities with serious injuries (KSI). It is understandable that the Mayor's spin team chose the slightly more flattering SI numbers for their press release.

Is it really getting better?

This chart from data expert Alex Ingram shows KSI numbers going back to 1982, we cannot calculate a casualty rate for this time as there are no reliable measures of the volume of cycling in London before 2000.

The yellow line shows how the numbers jump around from year to year. Alex makes the point that London Boroughs are asked to report on casualty performance using a three year rolling average, as shown in yellow dots. That gives a clearer picture of real trends.

There have been fanciful claims that the Police Operation Safeway late last year made a major contribution. Andrew Gilligan quotes a 60% reduction in serious injuries to cyclists in Central London in December 2013. Even if that was solely due to Operation Safeway and not influenced by the publicity surrounding six cyclist deaths it could, at best, only account for 3% of the total 28% reduction. The other 25% reduction remains unexplained.

The grey line illustrates the comparison made in the Mayor's press release between 1989 and 2012.  Alex commented that it "looks stupid".

Looking at the three year moving average calculation for the casualty rate, top chart - red dots, it appears that the rising trend from 2009 has evened off. It will, however, take another dramatic fall in the rate of serious injuries this year to get back to the level of 5 years ago.  We will need a reduction of over 20% in cyclist casualties this year to get back on track.

The Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, made some good points in his quote for the press release and expanded on them in typical style for the Evening Standard

He castigated the Green London Assembly member Jenny Jones  who had tweeted: "I think it's now fair to say the Mayor of London has blood on his hands." shortly after the third cyclist in two years was killed by a lorry at Bow Roundabout. The opposition parties in the London Assembly have constantly criticised the Mayor for the cuts to the road safety budget since 2009.

The Mayor has replied highlighting the current and planned investment in improving cycling infrastructure. Better infrastructure is desperately needed to reduce the danger for vulnerable road users who account for 80% of the fatalities in London. London Cycling Campiagn's "Space for Cycling" and "Love London - Go Dutch" actions seek to change that. Still inadequate infrastructure was a significant factor in about a quarter of the cyclist fatalities in 2012-13.

LCC's Campaigns Officer, Charlie Lloyd, commented: "As yet we do not know the full cost of the Police Operation Safeway. If it has been effective in reducing dangerous road behaviour and therefore reducing cyclist injuries then it represents a welcome reversal to the previous budget cuts."

Much of the media coverage and even more of the online comments focus of cyclists' law breaking and action against it. As we discovered in 2012 actual lawbreaking by cyclists is implicated in less than 5% of cyclists injuries so if Operation Safeway has been effective then it is the change in driver behaviour that has improved. That is why we focussed on driver carelessness in the LCC response.

Charlie Lloyd continued: "Carelessness on the roads is a crime. That was the view taken by parliament in establishing the relatively new charge of causing death by careless driving and also the power to issue fixed penalty notices for careless driving. These changes have not yet been fully appreciated by the driving public, the police nor juries. We would like to change that."