Building back better: creating safer roads to protect our future

2 February 2021    

Since the pandemic began, there have been so many changes in all our lives and good news has been thin on the ground. One of the few bright spots is that more people have started cycling in Scotland.

Our network of cycle counters recorded increases of 22 per cent to 77 per cent across the country, each month from spring to autumn last year, compared to 2019. 

With less options for exercise, a greater appreciation of the freedom of being outside and quieter roads during the first lockdown, cycling became an obvious choice for many. We heard inspiring stories from people of all ages and from many who hadn’t cycled since they were kids. Feeling healthy and happy, and the convenience of cycling, were the main benefits people shared – and many were initially motivated by the reduced traffic. Our research with 1,000 people across Scotland backs that up - road safety is the biggest barrier to more people cycling.

Unfortunately, traffic levels rose again quickly after the first lockdown and evidence proved that dangerous driving behaviour, like extreme speeding, increased in 2020. To build back better and, critically, to reduce climate emissions, a greater proportion of our journeys need to be cycled and safety remains the biggest barrier to achieving that.

Serious cycling casualties have been increasing over the last fifteen years. The reality is the chance of being seriously injured or killed cycling on Scottish roads is low – but one serious injury or death is one too many and fear of traffic is stopping more people cycling. Rather than accepting a rise in deaths and serious injuries being inevitable as more people cycle, we need to prioritise safety interventions in order to prevent them, as many European countries successfully have.

Good progress has been made reducing overall road casualties during the last decade and the Scottish Government is currently developing a new Road Safety Framework which will define the priorities for road safety for the next decade, working towards a vision of zero fatalities and injuries on Scotland’s roads by 2050.

Cycling Scotland and partner organisations have been clear for many years that the top priority is to create more dedicated cycling networks, separated from vehicle traffic and pedestrians, and we’re at the start of a long journey to build that network. It’s worth emphasising many other steps are needed in parallel to create safer roads for all, including a focus on vehicle speeds, traffic levels and management.

Reducing speed limits and tackling speeding make our roads safer for everyone, as recent Edinburgh 20mph evaluation demonstrated. Evidence shows the risk of serious injury or death for people cycling and walking increases disproportionately as speed increases.

A high proportion of serious collisions with people cycling and walking involve lorries and vans. We need to take steps to minimise when HGVs and people on bikes have to share the same road space. The freight and logistics industries have been put under huge pressure with covid and Brexit and the road safety implications of increased van and HGV traffic have to be considered, given the disproportionate numbers of crashes involving people driving for work.

On residential and shopping streets, where people are walking and cycling most, we need to reduce overall traffic levels. Smartphone routing apps directing drivers to rat runs has led to an increase in traffic on residential streets, where more people are walking and cycling. Given there are now 3 million vehicles registered in Scotland in 2018 compared to 2.66 million in 2008 and the increasing traffic growth, it’s a key part of making roads safer for vulnerable road users that emerging technologies are properly regulated.

As we build our network of cycle paths, we also need to keep providing cycle training and improving driver education and enforcement- to encourage confident and considerate cycling and, crucially, to reduce dangerous driving. Evidence shows that the majority of serious crashes, between a vehicle and an adult cycling, are caused by the actions of the driver.

Clearer guidance for the amount of space to give when overtaking someone on a bike is being proposed as part of the review of the Highway Code: once introduced, this guidance will need to be widely communicated and enforced.

Greater enforcement activity, both by cameras and police, has a proven impact on improving driver behaviour. As has happened in Wales and across England, we need an online third party reporting system so dashcam (and, where available, helmet cam) footage can be used to detect and enforce dangerous driving. The police can’t be everywhere but the public can – and organisations from Cycling UK to Roadpeace are rightly campaigning on this issue.

Increased tactical enforcement in London has been a key contributing factor in reducing killed and serious injury collisions in 2019 (though still too high). The Met Police also advocate for stronger sentencing for speeding and other dangerous driving behaviour, and while Scotland’s roads are very different, we can still learn from their approach.

As has been done effectively with drink driving in Scotland, we need people to associate reckless close passing and other dangerous driving with criminality, with stronger sentencing to match. Safer roads for cycling will be safer roads for everyone: prioritising safer roads is a culture shift, not a culture war.

In conclusion, the Scottish Government’s updated Climate Change Plan includes a welcome new aspiration to reduce traffic levels by 20 per cent by 2030. With road transport the largest single source of carbon emissions in Scotland, it will be impossible to reduce our climate impact and improve public health without changing spending priorities, cutting traffic levels and enabling everyone to walk, cycle and wheel more easily. If we want more people to cycle more journeys, building back better means building back safer.

This article was published in the Scotsman on 2 February 2021.