Arrive Alive

Cycling and Road Safety

A key element in promoting cycling and making it an attractive alternative to car use is that it should be safe. The National Cycling Forum (1999) states that “making the roads safer is a powerful incentive in persuading people to cycle more”.

People will not choose to cycle unless they see it as safe to do so. Fears of safety can become a major obstacle, therefore, to promoting and encouraging non-motorised modes of transport (Eltis, 2003). A survey by MORI showed that nearly half of those questioned said they would cycle for short journeys if roads were safer (National Cycling Forum, 1999).

Often there is a little real safety risk, but perceptions of danger may still persist and efforts must be made to ensure such misconceptions are allayed (Preston, 1990). Even where fear of risk does not deter the cyclist, professionals should seek to minimise it so as to reduce the resulting social and economic costs of death and injury (European Transport Safety Council, 1999).

Safety and Cycling:

  • There has been a tendency to see the two objectives of promoting cycling and improving road safety as conflicting and mutually incompatible.

  • However, it has been shown that it is possible to both increase cycling and also improve cyclists’ safety (Krag, 2002).

  • In fact, it has been shown that the safety of cyclists improves as the number of cyclists increases (Krag, 2002). For example, in Copenhagen and Odense, an increase in cycling has been brought about with a corresponding decrease in the number of accidents involving cyclists (Krag, 2002).

  • This may be attributable to the introduction of specific safety measures but may also be partially explained by the fact that the higher the level of cycling, the more cyclists on the road and the more car drivers become aware of and pay attention to cyclists (Krag, 2002).

  • The more cyclists there are, therefore, the potentially safer the individual cyclist (Jensen, 1998 in Road Directorate, 2000).

  • The scale and scope of safety measures that have been introduced to help non-motorised road-users, varies significantly between countries.

  • Countries which have introduced specific measures for different types and ages of road user have been successful in reducing the relevant death rates (Preston, 1990).

The facts and figures:

  • The risk of being killed in traffic per kilometre travelled is over 4 times higher for pedestrians and cyclists than car drivers (ETSC, 1999).

  • Walking and cycling have much greater risk levels per hour than travel in public transport vehicles (ETSC, 1999).

  • One of the greatest road safety problems in Danish urban areas is linked to cycle traffic. In Denmark in 1993, 1/3 of all road users killed/injured were cyclists (Road Directorate, 1994).

  • Between 1984 and 1993, total numbers of those killed and injured dropped. However, figures for cyclists have remained almost level (Road Directorate, 1994).

  • Cyclist safety varies substantially between countries. This may be partially explained by national levels and patterns of cycling which vary reflecting the different social, economic, infrastructural, topographical and climatic contexts (ETSC, 1999).

  • In 1996, the percentage of national road deaths represented by cyclists was 19.7% in the Netherlands; 17.1% in Denmark; 1.9% in Spain; and 1.6% in Greece (ETSC, 1999).

  • The numbers of cyclists killed/injured vary spatially and temporally. Most accidents occur on weekday afternoons and the risk of cycle accidents is 4-5 times greater in darkness than in daylight (Road Directorate, 1994). Some casualties occur in rural areas, but most occur in urban areas (European Transport Safety Council, 1999).

  • Increasing efforts are being made to promote cycling. Therefore, there is also a need for corresponding increasing effort focusing on the safety of cycling and aiming to ensure that urban traffic systems provide for vulnerable road users (ETSC, 1999).


  • The crux of the cyclist safety problem centres on the fact that there is lack of planning providing for cyclists and that the traffic system is designed predominantly with car-users in mind (European Transport Safety Council, 1999).

The European Transport Safety Council (1999) identifies 7 key problems for cyclists in the urban traffic system:

  • ‘Vulnerability’: Cyclists pose little threat to drivers and hence drivers have less reason to be aware of them. Speed is key in determining the severity of outcome. If collision speed exceeds 45km/hour, there is a less than 50% chance that the cyclist will survive. Even at low impact speed, cyclists can be badly injured. Helmets offer protection but helmet use varies by age, gender and location. Speed management is therefore crucial in a safe traffic system aiming to provide for vulnerable road users.

  • ‘Flexibility’: Motorists can never be sure when or where to expect cyclists – often cyclists flout road rules to make gains.

  • ‘Instability’: Cycle mistakes or failures are dangerous when they occur near other motor traffic/road users.

  • ‘Invisibility’: Cyclists are difficult to see and can be hidden, especially at night.

  • ‘Differing abilities’: Cyclists of all abilities and experience are present on the roads.

  • ‘Consciousness of effort’: Cyclists seek quick, easy, direct routes, so as to minimise effort.

  • ‘Estrangement’: Cyclists are often treated as nuisances on the roads, with little regard paid to their status as road users with equal rights.

  • Cyclist accidents rarely result from one of these problems alone, but typically arise when several of them combine (European Transport Safety Council).

  • An understanding of these key problems might help provide a framework on which to base planning for cyclists. The solution:

  • The European Transport Safety Council (1999) identifies three main kinds of risk in the safety of cycling:

    1. ‘Risk from traffic’;

    2. ‘Risk from falling’;

    3. ‘Risk from crime’.

  • It notes that these 3 types of risks can be managed respectively by:

    1. Managing risk from traffic in 3 ways:

      1. Separating different road users to reduce the potential of conflict;

      2. Creating safer conditions for the integration of road users in shared spaces; and

      3. Minimising consequences of collisions when they do occur.

    2. Ensuring high-quality design and maintenance of cycle surfaces.

    3. Crime can be a social problem but transport problems can attempt to minimise risk by ensuring the provision of well-lit, well-maintained, well-visible cycle routes and reducing the risk of theft of cycles by providing secure, visible storage.
      European Transport Safety Council (1999).

  • Following on from this, the European Transport Safety Council (1999) outlines six key action strategies which can help improve safety:

    • Managing the traffic mix by separating different road users to reduce potential conflict. Danish research indicates a fall in cyclist casualties of 35% after the introduction of cycle tracks along urban roads.

    • Where separation is not practical/desirable, ensuring safe conditions for the integrated use of shared road space is necessary. This includes road safety engineering measures and traffic and speed management schemes such as speed zones.

    • Changing attitudes and behaviour of motorists through information, training and enforcement of traffic law.

    • Consulting and informing cyclists about changes being made to fit their needs.

    • Minimising consequences of accidents when they do occur through crash protective design and encouraging use of protective equipment such as cycle helmets (particularly in high-risk groups), safer car fronts and HGV sideguards.

    • Changing priorities of policymakers/professionals responsible for the traffic system.

  • In addition to this, the National Cycling Forum (1999) recommends four key actions which will increase cyclist safety whilst simultaneously increasing cycling levels.

    1. Reducing motor traffic: this can make cycling safer since it reduces the potential for conflict with motor vehicles.

    2. Reducing motor traffic speed: traffic calming measures can be cycle-friendly, e.g. speed cushions.

    3. Implementing physical measures: e.g. cycle-specific features (cycle lanes/ASLS), or general features (e.g. redesigning junctions and traffic calming.

    4. Influencing behaviour and attitudes: e.g. road safety campaigns and teaching cycling skills, maintenance and safety.

  • An effective safety campaign must seek to both create a safer environment for cyclists, whilst also encouraging responsible behaviour by both cyclists and drivers.

  • The majority of cycle accidents involve cars and often in specific locations. Campaigns aiming to improve cyclist safety could, therefore, focus on reducing certain types of accidents and also preventing accidents in locations which are prone to accidents (National Cycling Forum).


European Local Transport Information Service (ELTIS) (2003) Walking and Cycling. At accessed on 17/04/2003

European Transport Safety Council (1999) Safety of Pedestrians and Cyclists in Urban Areas.

European Transport Safety Council, Brussels.

Krag, T. (2002) ‘Urban Cycling in Denmark’ in McClintock, H. (ed.) Planning for Cycling: Principles, practice and solutions for urban planners. Woodhead Publishing Limited, Cambridge, pp.223-236.

National Cycling Forum (1999) Safety Framework for Cycling. National Cycling Strategy, April 1999.

Preston, B. (1990) ‘The safety of walking and cycling in different countries’ in Tolley, R. (ed.) The greening of urban transport: planning for walking and cycling in Western cities. John Wiley and Sons Ltd., Chichester, pp.47-63.

Road Directorate – Denmark Ministry of Transport (1994) Safety of Cyclists in Urban Areas: Danish Experiences. Traffic Safety and Environment – Report 10. Danish Road Directorate, Copenhagen. Road Directorate (2000) Collection of Cycle Concepts. Road Directorate, Denmark.

(Info provided by

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