On 28 March 2022, the European Commission published road safety figures for 2021 for the entire EU area, showing that a total of 19,800 people were killed in road crashes last year, an increase of around 1,000 deaths from 2020.
However, deciphering what exactly this means in terms of long-term trends in road safety is difficult, due to the statistical irregularities caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which hugely impacted mobility patterns in all European countries, notably the first year of the pandemic.
It can be argued that the new figures for 2021 still represent a progressive trend for road safety in the EU, despite the increase in fatalities compared to 2020. This is because the significant 17% drop that happened between 2019 and 2020 (approximately 4,000 people) was clearly due to the fact that less people used the roads during the beginning of Covid-19. Put differently, 19,800 road deaths in 2021 still corresponds to around 3,000 less people killed compared to pre-pandemic levels.
So, even though overall mobility numbers still may not be as they were before the pandemic, the new numbers for 2021 provide cautious optimism about road safety in the EU. Despite the potentially good news, however, more work needs to be done to really understand what is behind the increase in fatalities – particularly for cyclists, a group that grew significantly during Covid-19.
1. Cycling fatalities in Europe
While we do not have the complete numbers of the various user groups killed in 2021, we know that the percentage of total fatalities that were cyclists increased to 14% last year, from 9% in 2019.
Cycling fatalities in total have remained fairly constant over the past ten years (around 2,000 people each year). However, EU data only provides cycling fatality numbers and not rates – meaning we do not have the number of fatalities per distance or time travelled. This is frustrating, as we do not know whether cycling is becoming safer or more dangerous.
The increasing number of cyclists since 2019 could be a reason why absolute cycling fatalities have been stubborn to fall. Along with the usual benefits, cycling was also a major lifeline for people during the pandemic. For example, Brussels saw an astonishing 64% increase in cycling during the first pandemic year of 2020. Other cities show similarly impressive figures.
To facilitate this cycling boom, public authorities have been providing more and more infrastructure and resources for cycling. The European Cyclists’ Federation’s (ECF) infrastructure tracker shows that nearly €1.7 billion was invested in cycling infrastructure during the first year of thepandemic, with nearly 1,500 km of cycle lanes installed across the EU, which helped boost cycling levels by between 11% and 48% in European cities.
2. The inherent danger of 2-tonne, 200-horsepower vehicles
Why, then, despite such significant investment in cycling infrastructure since 2020, has the number of road fatalities for cyclists increased? What else do we know about the risk on the roads?
We know that 83% of cyclist fatalities and 99% of pedestrian fatalities come about in crashes with motorised vehicles. The European Commission recently produced an excellent table looking at the collision “partners” in every EU road fatality in 2019, showing that motorised transport is hugely overrepresented in all fatal crashes.
In 2019, across the entire EU, motor cars killed no less than 9,525 people, while large vehicles killed 4,923. In comparison, only 19 pedestrians and 42 cyclists were killed in crashes with cyclists. This is not about blame or about who committed the error that led to the fatal crash; it is about the inherent danger of 2-tonne, 200-horsepower vehicles.
Perhaps 2021 was simply the year when the crowds of newfound cyclists from the pandemic cycling boom clashed with the return of pre-pandemic levels of motorised traffic. A clash that has now given rise to a whole host of new challenges.
3. Which measures can help improve road safety?
The EU recently passed legislation, the General Safety Regulation, mandating a set of motor vehicle safety features including Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA), blind spot detection and more, all with the aim of reducing road fatalities and the danger of cars, vans, trucks and buses. This is a welcome development, but much more needs to be done.
In April, ECF co-signed a letter with other safety and environmental organisations to European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans, demanding that the Commission issue a recommendation for all EU member states to introduce lower speed limits as a solution to road safety, CO2 emissions and energy security in Europe.
The numbers don’t lie: crashes and fatalities have been reduced in all cities that have introduced 30 km/h as a standard. Brussels has seen a 20% reduction in crashes since 2016 and a 50% reduction in road fatalities since 2020, Helsinki recorded no pedestrian or cyclist deaths since reducing speed on most residential streets to 30 km/h, while Oslo reduced road fatalities to nearly zero thanks to broad speed reduction policies and measures to improve cycling and walking.
Reducing speed limits and, generally, our use of cars is not only a local or national issue. With Russia’s war on Ukraine, Europe’s energy crisis and the global climate emergency, both the European Commission and the International Energy Agency are now officially recommending that people leave the car at home, reduce road speeds and prioritise the use of cycling, walking and public transport.
4. Vision Zero: Increasingly within reach?
Taking everything into account, Vision Zero, the target of zero road fatalities, seems increasingly within reach. To achieve Vision Zero, Europe needs much more and better cycling infrastructure, a general shift from powerful motor vehicles to less dangerous modes of transport, and to make those vehicles that are left on the roads much less dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians.
Today, each of these developments are underway in many cities and countries, leaving plenty of room for optimism that the EU can approach Vision Zero at some point in the near future – but only if we continue on our current trajectory.