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The dangers of cycling on our rural roads

By Peter Lorence, a specialist serious injury lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

The 2020 national restrictions in response to Covid-19 saw a marked change to how we lived our lives. Many people turned to their bicycles for a number of reasons, including fitness, pleasure and commuting.

In response, we saw many local authorities rushing to establish new safe cycling routes in our urban areas. However, on our rural roads, tragically we saw 43 per cent more cyclists dying compared with 2019, Department of Transport figures show. A total of 89 people lost their lives on our country roads, up from 60 in 2019.  This is in spite of motor traffic numbers decreasing as a consequence of the national restrictions.

Disproportionate risks of rural roads

Our rural roads represent a disproportionate danger to road users. Brake, the road safety charity, report that more than half of fatal incidents in Britain occur on rural roads and that, per mile travelled, rural roads are the most dangerous.

Of the 141 cyclist s who died on our roads in 2020, 89 of those were on rural roads. Yet, whilst we saw an increase in the numbers of people cycling, this did not mean that all cyclists shared the same risk. 

On urban A roads, the number of people killed fell by 10 per cent. For other urban roads, the number of fatalities remained the same (12 in 2019 and 12 in 2020), in spite of an overall 46 per cent increase in cycling miles travelled. Therefore, whilst urban cycling is becoming safer, rural cycling is even more dangerous.

The dangers

We are seeing investment across the country to better enable safe cycling in urban areas. This includes establishing segregated cycle routes, low traffic neighbourhoods and reducing speed limits.

Yet for those who rely on rural roads, the default speed limit is often 60mph. Further, roads can be narrow and winding, with blind bends, brows and limited safe places to pass. There is often limited protection at the sides of the roads, to step clear of the carriageway. Lighting is almost always poorer than in urban areas. 

Local authorities may treat their rural roads as less of a priority for maintenance, meaning that they could fall into a state of disrepair. There may also be mud or other debris on the road.

According to the Department for Transport’s statistics, the most common contributory factor when there has been a collision between a cyclist and another vehicle has been due to the driver of the other vehicle having failed to look properly. Of the 643 deaths involving cyclists between 2015 and 2020, most involved one other car (298). However, the highest proportion of collisions that resulted in fatal injuries involved an HGV (92).

What can be done?

At Irwin Mitchell, I represent those whose lives have been shattered by avoidable collisions on our roads. It is clear from the statistics that more needs to be done to protect vulnerable roads on our most dangerous roads. Rural communities should also benefit from investments to better enable safe cycling.

As we face the prospect of the emerging Omicron Covid-19 variant, people will remain reluctant to rely on public transport. In view of climate change, people will also look to rely on their bicycles instead of driving. Safe routes for cycling should be provided for in rural areas, not just urban.

I also query whether the default speed limit of 60mph is appropriate. A study of single-carriageway rural roads estimated that a 10 per cent increase in average speed results in a 30 per cent increase in fatal and serious crashes.

I therefore celebrate the work of NFU Mutual, combined with British Cycling and the British Horse Society in today launching their Respect Rural Roads campaign, encouraging those to take more care on our country roads.

Tips for safety on rural roads

  • Always keep your speeds in check. Even though the speed limits can be up to 60mph, you should always drive at a safe and comfortable speed consistent with the road conditions, especially if you are unfamiliar with the roads.
  • Be vigilant - rural roads contain blind bends and unforeseen hazards. Ask yourself whether you can stop safely and quickly if you came across an unforeseen hazard.
  • Be aware of the weather and adjust your speed accordingly.
  • Look for tell-tale signs of dangers ahead on the road, such as mud, skid marks or debris.
  • Try and avoid overtaking unless absolutely necessary.
  • Finally consider planning your journey carefully and if needs be stick to major roads, particularly when it’s dark.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by road collisions at our dedicated road traffic accident section.

The coronavirus lockdowns created a cycling boom in England, with record numbers of people out on their bikes to get exercise and fresh air.

However, official data from the Department of Transport also shows that many more cyclists died on rural roads in 2020 than in the previous two years.”