Calls for "urgent action" over alarming London cyclist death toll

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Calls for "urgent action" over alarming London cyclist death toll

17th July 2012

As the number of London cyclist fatalities in 2012 climbed to nine following another two deaths in the space of just over a week, a legal expert has demanded urgent action to address road safety issues for the capital’s cyclists.

A man in his 30s became the latest casualty after colliding with a car in Croydon last week - the ninth cyclist to die in London so far this year and the second so far this month following the death five days earlier of a 60-year-old man who succumbed to his injuries after colliding with an HGV.

“Two cycling fatalities in just a matter of days tragically illustrates just how important it is that the government and Transport for London (TfL) do more to tackle the threats cyclists are continuing to face each day on our roads,” said Matthew Claxson, a partner with Fentons Solicitors LLP who specialises in cases involving cyclist injuries and deaths.

“This is especially pertinent as we prepare to host the Olympic Games, when from this week all cyclists will be banned from using a shocking 95 per cent of the 30 miles of central London ‘Games Lanes,’ exclusively reserved for the chauffeured journeys of competitors, officials and sponsors. Bus lanes, which typically offer refuge from busy lanes of traffic, have been removed which means for the duration of the Olympics, cyclists will now be forced to share already limited road space with HGVs, buses and cars.”

Last month, figures released by TfL, revealed the steepest rise in the number of cycling injuries in a decade. A total of 16 cyclists died on London's roads last year, six more than in 2010 and the highest number of cycling fatalities since 2006. While nearly 4,000 cyclists suffered minor injuries in 2011, more than 550 were seriously injured - representing a 21 per cent hike compared to the previous year and the highest figure since TfL records began in 2002.

“Cycling in the capital has risen by at least 63 per cent over the last 10 years with a massive surge in popularity seen since Boris Johnson was elected Mayor in 2008 and championed cycling as a greener method of transport,” said Matthew. “But we are handling a significant and growing number of claims involving seriously injured cyclists, underlining the fact that cycling in London appears to be worryingly dangerous.”

Matthew said that conversely in the last few years the road safety budget has been more than halved and a ‘smoothing traffic-flow’ programme introduced by the Mayor has seen hundreds of traffic-lights re-phased to prioritise motorists’ journey times at the expense of more vulnerable road users. Perhaps unsurprisingly as a result, the rate of injuries has soared by 13 per cent, reversing a nine-year downward trend in road casualties.

“At a time of deep concern over the continuing number of cyclists being killed and injured on London’s roads, it is extremely alarming that road safety measures are being sidelined to enhance greater traffic-flow,” said Matthew. “A huge area of concern is the removal of hundreds of pedestrian crossings across the capital which has surely contributed to a reported 33 per cent increase in pedestrian deaths over a single year.”

TfL has said it is reviewing cycle safety ‘as a matter of urgency,’ but has ruled out any rethink of their ‘smoothing traffic-flow’ policy, insisting that ‘the measures benefit all road users without compromising safety.’

“Both cyclists and pedestrians are having their lives endangered each day because the Mayor and TfL are giving priority to motorised traffic and insisting on sticking to a road design that poses unnecessary risks to more vulnerable road users,” said Matthew. “While TfL’s familiar blue-painted cycle lanes are a step in the right direction, many cyclists believe that their layout on busy arterial roads, between rows of parked cars and main carriageways, puts them at risk of either being hit by opening car doors or trapped between moving and parked vehicles.”

A study conducted by an insurance comparison website recently revealed that 65 per cent of cyclists felt less safe than they did a year ago, with one in eight cyclists admitting to having been knocked off their bike by drivers and a third having been a victim of road rage - including four per cent who claim to have been chased by angry motorists.

“For all those cyclists who are tragically killed in London, there are a huge number who suffer non-life-threatening serious injuries,” said Matthew. “The number of seriously injured cyclists treated by The Royal London Hospital, which has by far the busiest Accident & Emergency department in London, has almost trebled over the last six years and many London-based trauma surgeons, who regularly treat injured cyclists, now believe cycling injuries have become a public health issue that needs urgent attention.”

A study conducted by trauma researchers from Queen Mary University, the London Helicopter Emergency Medical Service and the Trauma Clinical Academic Unit at the Royal London Hospital, examined the cases of over 260 cyclists who were admitted to The Royal London Hospital with serious injuries between 2004 and 2009.

The number of seriously injured cyclists admitted to the hospital rose from 24 in 2004, a year in which no fatalities were recorded, to 69 casualties plus eight deaths in 2009, a near three-fold increase. The study, which has been published online by the Emergency Medical Journal, is believed to be the first to analyse cyclists’ hospital admissions by the type of vehicle involved, and provides a valuable insight into the nature of injuries that collisions with different types of vehicle are likely to lead to.

“One in five cyclists who were admitted to The Royal London Hospital over the period covered had been involved in a collision with an HGV,” said Matthew. “This is despite the fact that HGVs only account for around five per cent of London’s traffic. Over the last 10 years, it is a sad reality that more than half of all cyclist deaths in the capital have been caused by collisions with lorries, of which the majority have occurred when HGVs have been turning left at traffic lights or other junctions.”

The study revealed that cyclists involved in collisions with HGVs were more than three times as likely to die as those involved in collisions with cars, often as a result of uncontrolled blood loss and severe injuries to the torso, pelvis and limbs. The study also found that although cyclists have a greater chance of surviving a collision with a car, they are more likely to suffer serious head injuries as a result.

“Serious cycling injuries commonly include devastating chest trauma affecting the ribs and lungs, abdominal injuries to the spleen and bowels, as well as fractures to the legs and pelvis,” said Matthew. “Uncontrolled bleeding is responsible for around half of deaths following such injuries, and although many cyclists remain conscious following a collision they are at risk of quickly bleeding to death at the roadside. Those who are fortunate enough to survive their first day in hospital still face the risk of overwhelming infection and organ failure. Hospital stays for such patients are normally prolonged and many will never cycle again,” he said.

Blind spots around HGVs are responsible for numerous deaths and serious injuries and safety campaigners have repeatedly called for lorries to be fitted with extra sensors to alert drivers whenever a cyclist or pedestrian is present alongside their vehicle.

“Out of the 16 cyclist deaths that occurred last year, nine were as a result of lorries turning left and not seeing their victims,” said Mathew. “In too many of these cases, HGV drivers are escaping punishment by claiming not to have seen cyclists in their blind spots, leading to criminal prosecutions against drivers being abandoned and coroners refusing to apportion blame.

“It is simply not good enough for prosecuting authorities to allow the existence of lorry blind spots to be a legitimate excuse for killing cyclists and pedestrians,” he added, “and it is high time legislation is introduced to ensure all lorries are fitted with cameras and sensors to warn drivers of the presence of nearby cyclists.”

The health benefits of cycling are clear and overall, increasing cycling in our cities benefits both the individual and the environment. However, it is obvious that there are inherent dangers involved when cyclists and heavy goods vehicles share the same road space and the risk of injury remains a major deterrent.

“It is unacceptable that cycling casualty rates in London continue to climb and it has become abundantly clear that radical measures are needed to combat this,” said Matthew. “Significant investment is needed to ensure limited road space can be cycle-friendly and shared safely and we need to foster a culture of mutual respect between cyclists and motorists to ensure a safer cycling environment.

“Cycling blackspots and junctions shown to be dangerous need to be identified and redesigned, speed limits need to be reduced in residential areas and cycle awareness needs to be a core aspect of driver training and assessment, particularly amongst HGV drivers,” he added. “In turn, greater use of cycling safety schemes need to be encouraged so that more people are better trained in cycling safely and responsibly.

“The experience of being involved in a serious road collision can be life-changing for all involved, not least those involving cyclists and vehicles several times larger in both size and weight,” said Matthew. “Some will never cycle again due to their injuries and some will never cycle again for fear of suffering further injuries. Many others will be denied the comparative luxury of either option.”

How can Fentons help?

Fentons has a specialist department experienced in handling claims for individuals who sustain serious injuries in road traffic accidents.

If you think that you have a case or require further information contact Fentons on 0800 0191 297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.