Cycling’s Risky Business

Professor Carl Heneghan explores the risk of Cycling in Oxford and whether cycling deaths have been a catalyst for change.

Professor Carl Heneghan

Co-Director of the GCHU, Kellogg College

Correspondence to: [email protected]

In 2008, in the Oxford Mail, I wrote about Oxford’s failure to learn about the significance of safety for cyclists.

I pointed out that in 1945 an open verdict was recorded at the inquest of an Oxford cyclist killed on the Abingdon Road; how in 1956, an inquest heard a man who only 150 yards from his home received fatal injuries while cycling, and how in 2005, a cyclist was killed by a bus driver who was distracted by an off-duty colleague.

These Oxford cycling deaths should have been the catalyst to reduce deaths to zero – to never events. So, in the intervening years, what has happened? Are our roads safer?

The most dangerous roads to cycle in Oxford are Botley Road and Iffley Road. Botley Road has seen three cyclists killed in the last five years, while Iffley Road has recorded 105 serious accidents since 2016.

In 2017, ‘Oxford’s Plain roundabout was branded the ‘second-most dangerous‘ for cyclists in the country,’ with 45 collisions reported to the police between 2009 and 2015.

According to the National Travel Attitudes Study, the pandemic has seen a substantial increase in cycling – a third of respondents report they were cycling more in 2020.  Currently, 300,000 cycle trips are taken each week in Oxford, and a new plan seeks to increase the number taking to the road by 50% over the next ten years.

However, in the UK, a record number of cycling deaths occurred in 2020, with 141 – 10 per cent of all road fatalities – the highest number in the last ten years. And as cycling traffic grew by 96% in 2020, so did serious injuries, which rose by 26%.

As for 2021, the problems seem to be worsening. In June, a driver killed two cyclists on the A40; while a cyclist on an electric bike sustained serious injuries and died after colliding with a metal pole on Old Road in Oxford, and in the same month a fourth cyclist died, struck by a van on the A4130 near Henley. In September, a 32-year-old woman died  in a collision with an HGV-mounted crane in Headington, and a biker killed a cyclist hailed as the ‘best father in the world’ in a head-on crash.

While there are simple issues we as cyclists can do, such as having a practical set of lights and reflective clothing to reduce our risk, there is an urgent need for better, safer roads to ride on.

Oxford has one of the highest rates of adult cycling in the country, with more than one in five reporting cycling at least once per week. The good news is that increased cycling numbers seem to reduce the risk of cycling – the safety-in-numbers effect.

A rapid review of the evidence reports that calming traffic measures such as speed humps and speed restrictions can effectively reduce casualties and increase participation; visibility clothing and equipment can also reduce the risk of an accident, and child casualties can be reduced with safe routes to school legislation.

However, much of the evidence remains low quality, and there are uncertainties about what effective interventions reduce the most serious accidents.

Cycling has lots of benefits in terms of the environment and our wellbeing. But it remains a risky business – it’s about time this changed.