UK Bike Safety


UK Safety Overview

 In the UK thirty years ago the bicycle was seen variously as a child's toy, the tool of northern touring clubs, how poor people got to work and, probably worse of all, what the French used to enjoy their weekends. Everyone wanted a car and even public transport was seen as laughable and useless. Who can forget the jokes about British Rail? However, since then the bicycle has risen from these depths to be seen as a sporty, useful and sustainable by many British people. But culturally, cycling as a form of transport rather than a type of exercise is still seen as a little quirky — a senior executive going to a business meeting by bike might be regarded as slightly odd.

 There is much more traffic on the UK's roads today, but very little extra space for bicycles except for Sustrans's bike tracks (bike paths defended from other forms of transport) and bike lanes provided by local councils in a somewhat ad hoc way. This lack of increased capacity has meant increased conflict between road users so that some aggression has grown between cyclists, drivers and pedestrians.

 Gathering statistics has proven difficult and comparison between countries is even harder; for instance, minor accidents or near-misses on a bicycle are seldom reported. The number of bike journeys or their range is reported nowhere. However, deaths are reported everywhere and below are the best statistics that can be dredged from the EU for roughly 2005. Finally, here is a map showing travel deaths in the UK. Have a scroll around.


Dead per Year

Pop mill
Deaths/ Pop mill
Spain 82 46 1.8
UK 152 62 2.5
France 180 65 2.8
Italy 296 60 4.9
Belgium 71 11 6.5

 Now these statistics fail to account for three issues:

  1. some of these countries do many more bicycle miles than others;
  2. they ignore the people whose health has improved due to regular bike-based exercise, so delaying deat; and
  3. those whose health was improved due to fewer car journeys and hence less pollution in their environment.



The poor condition of the road is believed to be a major cause of accidents on bicycles. In the UK the majority of potholes are caused by frost damage during cold winters.  If these are not repaired speedily the hole will enlarge due to passing heavy traffic and become more dangerous. Such holes need to be reported to the local council and CTC have a very effective reporting tool: have a look at Fill That Hole and you can also use their smartphone app to make reporting easy.


Bike Paths

Right now in England, Wales and Northern Ireland it is illegal to ride on the pavement (beside a carriageway) unless a clear bike path or track is indicated (Section 72 of the Highways Act 1835 and Section 85(1) of the Local Government Act 1888, see also Section 51 and Schedule 3 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988). In addition if a bike rider is behaving badly he could fall into the category of "dangerous cycling" which is an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1991. There is more information at BikeHub though not all of its advice is necessarily correct. Due to lack of training, irresponsible behaviour or genuine fear of the alternative road, cyclists do ride on the pavement in places and sometimes aggressively.  I have been ordered "out of the way" by riders when walking on a pavement and such behaviour is not acceptable.

Cycling in Scotland is more complicated as, in addition to the laws stated above, under section 7.1 of the Land Reform Act 2003 once a "Core Path" is along a footway contiguous with a road then you can ride on such a footway. Core Paths are (or should be) marked.

A great deal of debate goes on about behaviour on bike paths and pavements.


Sustrans offer the following marketing prattle to describe what they do.  Despite the words, they do offer a significant opportunity to enhance travel in particular for cyclists on a small range of special paths covering 13,000 miles which occasionally include small stretches of the country's 250,000 miles of road.

"Sustrans makes smarter travel choices possible, desirable and inevitable. We're a leading UK charity enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys we make every day. We work with families, communities, policy-makers and partner organisations so that people are able to choose healthier, cleaner and cheaper journeys, with better places and spaces to move through and live in."


Other Users

The obvious dangers to cyclists are

  • Pedestrians, car and truck drivers who don't see you.  They can be reported to the police or to the CTC at SMIDSY: "Sorry Mate I Didn't See You".
  • Cyclists who have not been educated in bike-use skills. There are good Bikeability courses around the country but there is no legal pressure on people (even children) to be trained to ride a bike and for many people "being trained" is not sufficiently cool.
  • Pavement clutter or road clutter distracting other road users.
    • Have a look next time you are out and see how often pavements are littered with the following
      • street fences
      • sign posts
      • bus stops
      • chairs
      • lamp posts
      • parked cars and vans
      • bus stops and shelters
      • rubbish bins
      • post boxes
      • telecoms boxes
      • street advertising
      • telephone boxes
    • This clutter ensures poor visibility and slows bikes down.  However, if there was more consistency in placing street furniture there would be more opportunity for bike tracks on pavements and more space for pedestrians as well.


Helmet Arguments

There are lots of arguments for and against compulsory helmet wearing and for a good round-up have a look at the following

  • The EU also have a good view.
  • Wikipedia also gives a write-up of the NZ position where helmets are compulsory

The core elements seem to us to be:

  • For
    • Helmets do protect heads
    • Young children generally have more easily damageable heads than adults
    • Children are more likely to fall off bikes than adults (until adults become aged/medically unstable)
    • Head injuries do reduce when helmet wearing is made compulsory
  • Against
    • Car drivers are less cautious near bike riders who are wearing helmets
    • Bike riders are less cautious when they are wearing helmets
    • Where laws making helmets compulsory are introduced there has been no perceived step-change improvement in bike injuries
    • Wearing helmets puts some people off riding bikes and so excludes them from the health benefitsof cycling

The fact that there is so much debate and bitter discussion on this issue suggests that the facts are not clear. Our views are that

  1. We should all care about making bike riding safe, and make a lot of noise to enhance bike safety.
  2. People who are more likely to fall off their bikes or who tend to fall off their bikes harder should wear helmets and this may include children, fast cyclists, mountain bikers, etc.
  3. The benefits of wearing helmets near other traffic is too uncertain but brightly coloured clothing and loud bells seem like a good idea. Conversely, wearing headphones is a bad idea.
  4. The root causes of bike injuries should be solved and this is more about:
    1. Poor road and cycle path planning and installation
    2. Bad behaviour from road users.

We've been asked to put up a couple of links by a few friends

The first is from a school in the USA (actually I'm not sure it is a physical school or home schooling) they want to add a view as to the possible injuries that can occur when a car hits you on a bike.  So a big shout to Carey Davis and Lisa, injuries.

The second is from Right to Ride who have seen the drastic reduction in Australian cycling since helmet legislation was brought in so increasing the opportunity to die from lack of exercise.  RTR.


UK Links



The words in this article are for general discussion and do not constitute legal advice. If you have been involved in an incident your legal position will depend on the facts in your case. Please consult with a lawyer.


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