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How Can Britain's Roads Be Made Safer For Vulnerable Users?

According to Cycling Weekly, October saw a significant number of cyclists killed or injured as a result of collisions with cars. So, how safe are roads in the UK for cyclists? It's a question that crops up time and time again, and often kick-starts vigorous debates on the relationship between cyclists and other road users.

Statistically, roads are safer than they have ever been, and the number of deaths caused by accidents seems to be falling - in 2005, there were 55 cyclist fatalities per billion miles cycled, and 10 years later this fell to 31 deaths per billion miles.

While this may be good news for vulnerable road users, there is a particular type of accident that is, unfortunately, on the rise.

'Car dooring' related incidents (where cyclists are hit by drivers opening their car doors without checking for oncoming traffic first) have increased significantly over the past few years, with 474 'dooring' accidents reported in 2015 alone.

If the number of fatalities and the overall number of serious injuries from incidents like these are counted together, this means the risk of life-changing injury on British roads is still higher than it was 10 years ago. In the UK, cyclists are the second most at risk group of road users after motorcycle riders.

So, what's being done to make roads safer and prevent accidents?

According to Cycling UK, cyclists are more at risk on UK roads than in many other European countries. This typically comes down to "poorly designed roads and junctions, traffic volumes and speeds, irresponsible driving, and a legal system that fails to respond adequately to road danger".

However, to protect vulnerable road users, many schemes and campaigns have been put in place to help cyclists and motorcylists share the highways safely with fellow car drivers.

In the West Midlands, police have come up with an initative to educate drivers on the dangers of driving too close to cyclists. The award-winning three-month long campaign involved police pulling over drivers who got too close to an 'undercover' cyclist to advise them about giving cyclists more space. The West Midlands police forced recorded a 50% drop in reported incidents where drivers were too close to cyclists in the three months after the campaign ran.

Other positive steps include more cycle lanes popping up across the country to give cyclists their own dedicated space on the roads. Towards the end of last year, the London Mayor oversaw a scheme to create a two-way cycle lane in central London.

£913 million has been invested in the project to build a network of 'cycle superhighways' across London exclusively for the use of cyclists. Similar schemes have been implemented in Manchester to create new cycle paths - £42 million is being spent on a Cycle City scheme to make it safer for cyclists on the road.

Alongside these initatives, cyclist campaigners and charities have called on the Government to exclude vulnerable road users from the impending whiplash claim reforms. The arguments are that plans to impose stricter limits on claims for whiplash injuries, and ensure that any claims below £5,000 go through a small claims court, do not take into account the impact on vulnerable road users.

Accidents involving people not protected from impact by their own vehicle, such as cyclists, tend to be much more complex, and this has not been considered in many parts of the proposals. Campaigning groups are urging the Government to make a clear distinction between claims from different types of road users, rather than applying a blanket-approach policy to anyone on the road to ensure cyclists can still obtain justice if they are injured.

But, what can be done to reduce 'car dooring'?

Dooring is remarkably common, but seems to have received very little attention. This cannot continue, and drivers need to be educated further around the dangers they pose to vulnerable road users, such as cyclists.

We recently settled a case that involved a retired university lecturer and much-loved husband who was killed in a car dooring incident. In 2014, 76-year-old Dr Robert Hamilton was cycling in Southport when he was hit by the door of a stationary car, which was opened by a motorist who failed to check for passing cyclists. Robert sustained serious head injuries and was airlifted to Preston Hospital where he later died. The incident shook the local community and is just one of many cases we see that could easily have been prevented.

Charity Cycling UK has recently launched a campaign calling for more action to be taken to protect vulnerable road users by introducing the Dutch Reach approach. Used widely in the Netherlands, it is an effective way to help reduce the number of car dooring incidents, and ultimately help to save lives. This method involves drivers using their hand furthest away from the door to open it, meaning they will have to twist their bodies towards the door, allowing them to look out for moving traffic.

At the moment, little guidance is given on this approach in the UK, and more promotion is needed to make drivers aware that there is a safer way to open car doors. In the Netherlands, it is taught to children when they are of school age and is also included in driving tests. This ensures that it is engrained and practiced on a wide basis across the country to protect all vulnerable people passing the vehicle - not just cyclists, but pedestrians, motorcyclists and even parents pushing prams. With car dooring incidents rising in the UK, lessons can be certainly be learned from the Dutch to avoid these preventable accidents.

While car dooring may sound minor to some, in reality, it is extremely dangerous and can cause so much devastation to our nation's vulnerable road users. Current punishments for this offence (up to a £1,000 fine and no penalty points) are completely inadequate and more action is needed, both from the Government and transport organisations, to get this matter taken more seriously. We need to raise awareness around the dangers of car dooring to protect cyclists and make Britain's roads safe.

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