UK cycling – how bike safety can be improved

Why infrastructure, attitudes and the law should be priorities

We only have to look at cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen to know that it’s possible for motorists and cyclists to co-exist happily. Yet it’s taken recent accidents involving Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins and Team GB head coach Shane Sutton to re-open discussions about attitudes towards cyclists and failures to accommodate them within the UK’s transport system. Yesterday’s crash involving sprint champion Mark Cavendish will no doubt act as fuel to the fire.


Since Bristol was named Britain’s first Cycling City in 2008, its number of cyclists has risen and about five percent of all journeys there are currently made by bike. Unfortunately, serious injuries to cyclists have also risen in the city – by 16 percent. This is not an isolated trend, as KSI figures (number of people killed and seriously injured) across the country have risen in the last few years for cyclists and pedestrians, despite falling for vehicle drivers. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 107 cyclists were killed on Britain’s roads in 2011.

However, there’s no correlation between the increase in number of cyclists and the number of accidents in cities where cycling is seen as an integral part of the transport network. Places such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, for example, have spent time and resources on making cycling safe. 

Infrastructure possibilities

In Amsterdam, cyclists have the benefit of extensive, exclusive paths that are well-lit, properly signposted and offer dedicated traffic signals at the busiest junctions. The latest report into road casualties in Britain reveals that 75 percent of serious traffic accidents happen at road junctions. 

In Copenhagen, there’s an emphasis on segregating cycle lanes with raised pavements wherever possible. And in Melbourne, Australia, they’ve started providing dedicated cycle paths known as ‘Copenhagen lanes’, inspired by the Danish capital.

The current ‘Bicycle Account’ in Copenhagen has set the city a challenging target, with planners aiming to make it the best cycling city in the world. To achieve this, they’ve got a number of projects in mind, including building more bridges dedicated to cyclists and pedestrians.

A foot and hand rail for cyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark
A foot and hand rail for cyclists in copenhagen, denmark:
Jan Olsen/AP/Press Association Images

A hand and foot rail for cyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark

They will also be improving and increasing the bicycle parking and storage facilities, redesigning road junctions and implementing speed decreasing measures for motor vehicles where they cannot be separated from the bicycles, and adding a lane to existing cycle paths (making them three across). There are even guarded bicycle stores in Amsterdam but there is a small charge to use them.

Changing attitudes

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be as simple as improving cycle lanes or addressing other practical challenges, such as the lack of bike storage or shower facilities for cyclists who commute to work. 

One of the fundamental issues is the attitude motorists have towards cyclists and their right to ride. In many foreign cities – and in some UK cities, such as Oxford and Cambridge – cycling is ingrained in the culture. This is partly because there are so many more riders – in Copenhagen, over a third of the population (36 percent) travel to work, school or university by bicycle – but also because more children grow up cycling and it’s simply a way of life.

In UK culture the car is still the dominant form of transport. Many say cycling is impractical – in trying to juggle hectic working lives with school and social activities, for example. Any new initiatives will need to bear this in mind.

The uptake of cycling and attitudes towards it might improve if we promote cycling’s health benefits, the enjoyment of our surroundings it brings and the way it can boost the economy via the creation of more bike-related jobs.

Transport for London offer dedicated route maps for people wanting to explore the UK capital by bike
Transport for london offer dedicated route guides for people wanting to explore the uk capital by bike:
Tim Ireland/AP/Press Association Images

Transport for London offer dedicated route maps for those wanting to ride in the UK capital

It’s also important to move away from unhelpful cycling stereotypes, such as the perception that cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road. Exactly the same argument can be applied to motorists, who have far more potential to inflict lethal damage when they run a red light.

Cycling and the legal system

In Amsterdam, attitudes are supported by a legal system where the principle of ‘strict liability’ applies. This means that a vehicle insurer is automatically responsible for an accident involving a cyclist. In our jurisdiction (England and Wales), liability for traffic accidents involving injured cyclists is established when the defendant is negligent (at fault), on the balance of probabilities, for causing the accident. 

The Highway Code states that cyclists are vulnerable road users, and the courts give regard to the issue of ‘causative potency’. This means that motorists have a greater burden to guard against accidents involving cyclists. If the Dutch principle of strict liability were to be adopted, motorists would be responsible for causing the accident without a fault being found against them.

Strict liability currently applies to claims made by cyclists for accidents caused by defective products, under the Consumer Protection Act. We often see cyclists who have been injured by defective equipment – when handlebars fail, for example.

Some of the UK’s cycle safety laws are under review. For example, it’s being debated whether wearing a helmet should be made compulsory, in the same way that motorists are obliged to wear a seat belt. 

Interestingly, if this is not made law by the government, there’s been a sign that a finding of contributory negligence may be applied against injured cyclists if they fail to wear a helmet in circumstances where there’s evidence that a helmet is more likely than not to have reduced the severity of their injuries. The penalty would be a reduction in the compensation paid. 

The UK government recently launched the ‘Get Britain Cycling’ enquiry. A report is due in April 2013, but I believe meaningful changes will only take place when more people have friends, relatives or colleagues who cycle regularly. And when we have more cyclists, an improved infrastructure and start to see a positive shift in attitudes, we can look at ways of linking the different forms of transport. 


Mark Hambleton is a cycling law expert with Withy King, and a keen cyclist. For tips on cycle safety, watch BikeRadar‘s video below:

Cycle safety tips from bikeradar