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Worrying rise in cyclists injured on Scotland's roads

The number of cyclists and pedestrians seriously injured on Scotland's roads has risen sharply, putting ministers under mounting pressure to cut accident rates by investing in more safety measures.

Pedestrians and cyclists do not always co-exist peacefully and safely with cars and other vehicles on UK roads  Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Pedestrians and cyclists do not always co-exist peacefully and safely with cars and other vehicles on UK roads Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The latest official figures from government agency Transport Scotland reveal there was a 13% jump in the number of cyclists suffering serious injuries in 2011 when compared with 2010. There was a 12% increase in the number of seriously injured pedestrians.

This has prompted a barrage of angry demands from politicians, transport campaigners, cycling and walking groups for Scottish ministers to boost funding for cycleways and footpaths, better roads and tougher speed limits. Otherwise, they warn, more cyclists and pedestrians will be injured or killed.

The revelations come at the end of a week that saw two of the UK's top cycling figures knocked off their bikes. On Wednesday evening, Bradley Wiggins, the winner of this year's Tour de France and a four-time Olympic champion, was hit by a van near Wigan in Lancashire. He spent a night in hospital, and was discharged with a bruised hand and ribs.

On Thursday morning, Shane Sutton, head coach for Britain's cycling team, was involved in a collision with a car in Manchester that left him in hospital with bleeding on the brain and a fractured cheekbone.

The crashes highlighted the dangers cyclists face, and led to multiple calls for better safety provisions in England. But the new figures unearthed by the Sunday Herald show there are also major risks in Scotland, which could escalate as more people take up cycling after Team GB's exploits at the Olympics.

The accident figures for cyclists and pedestrians were buried in a statistical publication from Transport Scotland last month. Its headlines highlighted downward trends in car casualties, and reassuring long-term trends in road injuries and deaths.

But the report's detailed tables also disclosed that the number of cyclists seriously injured on Scottish roads rose from 138 in 2010 to 156 in 2011, reversing the downward trend of previous years. The number of cyclists killed in each of the last two years was the same – seven.

Similarly, the number of pedestrians suffering serious injuries increased from 457 in 2010 to 513 in 2011. The number of pedestrians killed fell slightly from 47 to 43.

At the same time, the number of people travelling in cars who suffered serious injuries dropped 16% from 902 to 756, while the number of motorcyclists with serious injuries fell 8% from 319 to 293.

Experts point out that the increase in cycling injuries far outstrips the estimated 1%-2% increase in the number of cyclists on the roads. They also suggest serious accidents are more frequent on fast rural roads than on slow city streets.

Although cyclists' behaviour is sometimes flawed – by actions such as jumping red lights – evidence suggests drivers are more often to blame for accidents because they frequently fail to see cyclists. An analysis of cycle injuries for the Department for Transport found two-thirds of crashes involving adult cyclists were said by police to be the fault of drivers, with just one in five blamed solely on the cyclist.

Alison Johnstone, the Green MSP who co-convenes the Scottish Parliament's cross-party group on cycling, accused Scottish ministers of failing to tackle the road conditions that were putting cyclists and pedestrians at risk.

"To see so many more people seriously injured while on their bike or while trying to cross a street is shocking," she said.

"I hope it makes the SNP government realise that its response has been weak – nothing more than a fig leaf. It's incredibly frustrating to see ministers yet again reviewing an aspirational cycle action plan rather than delivering real action."

Johnstone has demanded firm timescales for action, ring-fenced funding, and the reversal of cuts to council road maintenance budgets so that dangerous potholes can be repaired. She also wants dedicated cycle paths between small towns and stricter speed limits.

She added: "We should consider the kind of road-user hierarchy that is commonplace elsewhere in Europe and assumes liability on the part of the heavier vehicle. This would dramatically improve driver behaviour and make cyclists take more care around pedestrians."

Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland, described the current level of funding for walking and cycling as hopeless. He warned: "Accidents to cyclists and pedestrians will continue to increase while the Scottish and UK governments give too much priority to the motor vehicle over other forms of travel."

Cycling groups cautioned that the Scottish Government would fail to meet its target for one in every ten journeys to be made by bike in 2020 unless funding was boosted from just 1% of the transport budget to more than 5%.

David Brennan, from the campaign group Pedal on Parliament, said that without the rise, "people will be killed and injured needlessly on our roads".

According to John Lauder, director of the transport charity Sustrans Scotland, the increase in serious injuries requires an urgent response from ministers.

"Every death on our roads is unnecessary and tragic, and there is much more that needs to be done to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable road users," he said.

Cycling Scotland, an agency funded by the Scottish Government to promote cycling, pointed out that accident rates were lower than they were 10 years ago and that cycling in Scotland was statistically twice as safe as in the rest of the UK.

However, the agency's chief executive, Ian Aitken, said: "This increase in accident rates needs to be taken very seriously and all possible measure should be put in place to ensure we return to the downward trend in cycling injuries."

Transport Scotland recognised that there was still "much to do" to improve the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. A spokeswoman said: "Since 2007 we have invested over £83 million on promoting active travel and improving facilities and infrastructure.

"Earlier this year we announced an additional £20m for infrastructure to support active travel over the next three years. We will continue to encourage local authorities to make cycling a priority in their areas, and promote more 20mph zones in urban areas."

CASE STUDY

'I was lucky: I got a sore backside, a bruised leg, severe road rash and bruising on my arm'

Craig Jenkins is still in pain every day. He dislocated his shoulder and ruptured ligaments just before last Christmas when he was flung off his bike after being forced into a pothole by a taxi.

He can no longer do his job as a postal worker properly, and, aged just 38 with a four-year-old son, is now facing the prospect of being medically retired. He can't ride his bike any more because of pain in his hands, and has been obliged to buy a car.

"I had many near-death experiences before actually getting hurt," he told the Sunday Herald. "It's dangerous out there.

"You really need to be out on the bike to see what you are up against with regard to the quality of road surfaces, cycling infrastructure and standard of driving."

Jenkins was cycling to work from Duddingston in Edinburgh early on December 23, 2011 when a taxi sped past him at a pedestrian crossing on Peffermill Road, forcing him to steer straight into a deep hole at the side of the road.

"Next thing I knew was my head, in a helmet, striking the road and I ended up in the middle of the road," he said. "As I lay there, I saw the taxi simply continue on." He had to go to hospital, have an operation and take three months off work.

"Unfortunately I have had complications from the surgery, with suspected nerve damage," he said. "I had further tests last week and am waiting on the results, though it's now looking like it could be permanent."

It's no wonder people are scared to cycle to work, he argued. "We can't simply keep designing cities around cars. Much of the present infrastructure seems to have been thought out by people who have never cycled."

Mark Findlay, a 40-year-old computer manager at Edinburgh University, was cycling home through South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth on February 16 this year when a car came out of a side street and hit him. "This is really going to hurt," he thought, as he was thrown through the air.

"I was lucky," he said. "I got away with a sore backside, bruised leg, and some severe road rash and bruising on my left arm." But the accident left him mentally scarred.

"I was so frightened of the bike that I made excuses for a couple of weeks afterwards as to why I couldn't cycle," he recalled. "I was a nervous wreck."

Kirsten Hey, a 42-year-old occupational therapist with City of Edinburgh Council, was struck by a van in December 2008 while she was cycling along the city's Duddingston Road. "He said he didn't see me," she said. "My arm still hurts now when I think about it."

She started using more off-road paths, but has since twice come off her bike in icy conditions, severely injuring her pelvis last December. "I'm still in pain and my hip joint will eventually develop arthritis," she said.

If the idea was to make cycling safer by encouraging cyclists to use off-road paths, they should be gritted in the winter, she argued. "Sometimes it seems you just can't win," she sighed. "Edinburgh's supposed to be a model cycling city, but that's a joke."

Let's share the road, not the road rage

COMMENT by Susan Swarbrick

A SHADOW looms ominously over me, the distinctive roar of a diesel engine growing closer. I don't need to look round. I know there's a bus only inches from the back wheel of my bike.

I pedal faster, legs like pistons, fruitlessly trying to carve some distance out but all too aware that if I have to brake suddenly or hit a pothole, it's not going to be pretty.

Finally the bus draws into a stop and I have some breathing space. Although not for long. As I pull up at a set of traffic lights, a driver in the next lane winds down his window.

"Stop jumping the f****** queue," he shouts, even though there is a dedicated bike box marked clearly on the road.

I pretend not to hear and stare unblinkingly ahead. "Buy a f******* car or stay off the roads," he adds for good measure. The lights change and I cycle away, determinedly fighting back tears.

Don't get me wrong, it's not always like this. I can go days and weeks with only flawless, joyful commutes and then, like last Tuesday, on a miserable rainy Glasgow morning, come perilously close to being knocked off my bike no less than four times in half a mile.

There are times when it feels like a lottery as I throw a leg over the saddle. Am I going to glide seamlessly to work, or find myself counting my blessings that I've arrived with all four limbs and skull intact?

I've been tailgated, thumped by a wing mirror, had an orange-juice carton jettisoned at my head, and more than a few deliberate puddle-water facials. But then there are drivers so careful and courteous I could weep with gratitude.

I can see both sides of the argument. I'm all too aware there are cyclists whose abysmal and dangerous bike-handling skills should see them kicked off the roads, not least those who sail through red lights and dispense with using hand signals. That must scare the hell out of drivers. It certainly terrifies me.

The Danes have a saying:"You're safer on the bicycle than on the sofa" – the suggestion being that a sedentary lifestyle is a potentially greater threat to longevity than hopping into the saddle.

But then Denmark is a country where cycling accounts for 13% of all journeys (and in the capital, Copenhagen, 36% of daily commutes). In Scotland, recent statistics show 1% of commutes are currently made by bike. 23% are on foot and 46% by car. We've got a long way to go.

All I would say is: the next time you feel compelled to hurl abuse at a cyclist, think about how you would feel if it was your mum, dad, sister or brother. At the end of the day, we're all just trying to get somewhere.

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