A draft Action Plan for road safety in London has finally appeared and it gives us all a big opportunity to discuss how we can reduce the number of people regularly dying or being injured on London’s roads.
Rather than outline my own ideas, it might be more useful to talk about a few of the ‘do and don’t’ type rules that we should apply when thinking about what the problems are and what solutions should therefore take priority.
The casualty results from one year are not a ‘trend’. The experts says that you need three years worth of casualty figures to justify a trend, or to assess whether something has worked or not. This applies to everything from assessing the safety of cycling superhighways, to justifying a safety camera being put on Blackfriars Bridge after the redesigned road was reopened.
Of course, common sense says you should ignore such rules if something is obviously visibly dangerous and needs to be sorted. For example, the Mayor’s superhighway scheme at Bow Roundabout lead to two deaths within a few months of being opened and as a result, Transport for London acted quickly to change it.
I did slightly jump the gun myself when I noticed that slight casualties had gone up in London in 2009-10, but that was because it reversed a 9 year consistent decline. You can see from the graphs (below) that some of the long term trends from the period when I was the Mayor’s road safety ambassador (2001-08) have started to reverse.
Some will argue that the rate is more important than the absolute figures. If London’s population rises and the number of pedestrian journeys goes up, then it would seem natural that we might see more pedestrian casualties. Except if you look at the graph, pedestrian casualties declined rapidly until 2008, the pre-recession period when London’s economy and population was growing fastest.
The casualty rate per cycle journey has become an important figure amongst cycling campaigners who are keen to keep some perspective on how dangerous our roads are and not put people off the idea of pedal power. Using this approach to the figures we can say that London’s roads are certainly safer than they were in 2000, although they are NOT safer than when Boris got elected in 2008. However, there is a real danger with focusing on the casualty rate rather than the absolute number of bodies on tarmac. We should be aiming for fewer casualties, not more than double what we already have, but that is the projection if we keep the same casualty rate and achieve the Mayor’s modest target for increasing the number of cyclists.
The Mayor was very happy to be making progress with a 3% reduction in the total number of killed and seriously injured last year. Focusing on the total number is a very human thing to do, as it matters little to relatives and friends of a road traffic victim whether they were a car driver, or a cyclist. However, it does matter if you are looking for solutions. In 2011, there were 223 fewer car occupants killed or seriously injured, but 171 more pedestrians and cyclists. We have safer vehicles, but not safer roads. This is part of a historic trend towards vulnerable road users making up a higher proportion of the decreasing number of casualties. In the late nineties, cyclists, pedestrians and powered two wheelers made up 54% of the KSIs. Last year, vulnerable road users made up 77% of the KSIs.
Improvements in vehicle design account for much of the total reduction in KSIs over recent decades, but further KSI reductions will require action at a local level by the Mayor and local authorities. The Mayor’s Action Plan can only succeed if they identify the reasons why cycling/pedestrian casualties have risen so quickly and then put resources into the solutions.
There is a lot of confusion about whether it is better to use figures relating to deaths, or those which combine killed and seriously injured (KSI), or even the total number of casualties which I used at the start. On the one hand the larger the number, the more certain the trend and the fewer the number, the less reliable the trend. That is why it is a mistake to talk about cycling fatalities, as the numbers are so few they are bound to fluctuate and it can give a misleading impression of what is really going on.
However, there are significant doubts about whether people bother to report many of their slight injuries. This under reporting could distort the figures, but the reality is that the trends are remarkably consistent (they don’t zig zag which is what you would expect with an unreliable figure), which makes slight casualties a very good indicator of what is going on. For example, the Mayor seemed relaxed about the number of casualties starting to rise, as he was focused upon the number who were Killed and Seriously Injured. My view was that a rise in slight pedestrian casualties would turn into a rise in the number of pedestrian KSIs and that is exactly what happened in 2011.
Transport for London recently put together a report on cycling fatalities to its Board and highlighted all the work it was doing to make lorries safer. The Government is being lobbied to improve the safety design of lorries. Many of the recommendations flowing from the current review of junctions are also likely to feature actions aimed at improving the safety of lorries, with either more Trixie Mirrors and/or more Advance Stop Lines. Action on lorries is undoubtedly important and there is a strong emotional case for ending the tipper truck menace, but even if we stop all fatalities caused by lorries, the number killed and seriously injured is still likely to rise. In 2011, there were 571 cycling KSIs, but only 20 of these involved an HGV. The focus on cycling fatalities is leading to a focus on lorries and that could mean the Mayor ignores the expensive engineering solutions which are the key to dealing with the bulk of the KSIs.
Jenny Jones is a Green party member of the London Assembly