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Call for urgent action after steep rise in cyclist deaths in France

Road safety associations deplore ‘increasingly aggressive’ behaviour of motorists, particularly in rural areas

A 2022 report showed an alarming jump of 30% on figures for 2019. Photo used for illustration purposes only Pic: _Lesik / Shutterstock

The French federation of cyclists is calling for urgent action to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries involving cyclists on French roads after a 2022 report showed an alarming jump of 30% on figures for 2019 (the last pre-pandemic) year.

The federation deplores the “increasingly aggressive” behaviour of drivers, particularly in rural areas, where the figures have spiked most markedly.

It is requesting a road safety forum to bring car and road groups together with the cycling fraternity to agree a plan for all road users so as to safeguard the safety of non-motorised so-called ‘soft transport.’

"We are seeing more and more aggression from motorists, particularly in the countryside where drivers seem most intolerant of cyclists,” said Teodoro Bartuccio, president of the Fédération des usagers de la bicyclette (FUB, the French cyclists’ federation). 

Majority of cyclist fatalities occur outside towns

"More than 60% of cyclists who died after an accident were riding outside of city areas,” says Mr Bartuccio. This was, he said, not just a major issue of public health but of transport philosophy. With the government's encouragement of ‘soft mobility,’ bike riders in the countryside must get the same level of security as those in cities, insists the FUB.

"Whether for sport or leisure, we should be able to ride without fear of bad drivers. Our future champions, some of whom will be participating in the Olympic Games in Paris 2024, are just as effected as casual bike users," the report stated.

Rural drunk ploughs into peloton

The report was published just after a motorist mowed down 13 young cyclists of the Vélo Club du Pays de Guingamp, gravely injuring two of them on Saturday, January 21, in Brittany.

Heavily intoxicated, the driver of an Audi swerved as he passed the cyclists. Several riders were taken to hospital in Saint-Brieuc with serious injuries. 

In total 244 cyclists were killed on the roads of France in 2022, the provisional report published by the National Interministerial Observatory of Road Safety (ONISR) shows. This is an increase of 30% compared to the last pre-pandemic year, 2019.

"Unfortunately, and this goes hand in hand with the development of soft mobility, there is a worrying increase in the mortality of cyclists and users of 'motorised personal displacement devices' (powered bikes, scooters etc)," said the interministerial delegate for road safety, Florence Guillaume.

Countryside poses the most danger for cyclists

A more detailed report is due in the spring but it seems clear that the countryside poses the most danger for cyclists, reports stating that only one person was killed on a bicycle in Paris in 2022.

Another report by ONISR in 2021 showed that mortality in rural areas had risen four times faster than in towns.

Senior citizens on leisure trips are those most effected. In 2022, 38% of cyclists killed whilst cycling on a country road were aged over 55. The main increase in mortality was seen amongst those aged 75 and over, always outside built-up areas.

"The Sunday sportsman in Lycra shorts, brightly coloured jersey and streamlined helmet, runs a much higher risk than the employee from Nantes cycling to the office," says Le Monde journalist Olivier Razemon in his book The Power of the Pedal.

Link with increased speed limits

Road deaths have been most marked in departments where the speed limit has been raised to 90km/h. 

Read more: MAP: See which areas of France have reinstated a 90km/h speed limit

Read more: Has reducing the French speed limit to 80km/h saved lives?

"It is a completely lethal speed for cyclists," warns Thibault Quéré, spokesman for the French Federation of Bicycle Users (Fubicy), who also mentions risky behaviour (alcohol, drugs, speeding). 

Another cause cited is the lack of bicycle lanes on departmental and national roads. "This is the blind spot in public policy," says Mathieu Chassignet, an engineer specialising in sustainable mobility.

There has been a significant increase in urban cycling since the Covid-19 pandemic, with numbers up by 34% in 2022, according to figures from Vélo & Territoires cited by the ONISR in its report. However urban mortality is increasing at a much slower rate.

As has been seen in other countries, the greater the number of bicycle users, the more their relative mortality decreases as well as that of pedestrians and even motorists. "Cyclists contribute, by their very presence, to slowing down traffic," said Mr Razemon. "The more numerous they are, the more they lead motorists and motorcyclists to ease off". 

Safety in numbers

This is what we call "safety by numbers", said Mr Chassignet: "First, motorists get used to their presence and take them more into account; moreover, the balance of power is reversed on the road, the motorist can no longer rush; finally, more and more motorists travel by bike themselves from time to time and become aware of the challenges faced."

In the Netherlands, a country devoted to the bicycle (and which encourages the use of small cars), the number of accidents per kilometre travelled is lower than in France. Conversely it is higher in the US where car culture predominates, according to a report in Le Monde.

This does not mean that cycling in the city is without risk. One of the main urban risks involves heavy trucks turning right where blind spots can result in the driver failing to see a cyclist. 

Women are more likely to be victims of this type of accident in Paris, according to an analysis by Libération in 2019, as men are more likely to jump a red light so passing before the trucks move and being less exposed to the risk.

Another risk faced by cyclists is an unexpected opening of car doors as they approach or pass a car.

Fubicy also cites intersections with poorly signalled or poorly designed right-of-way, which "turn into cyclist choppers," according to Mr Quéré. 

However infrastructure is not the only issue. In the Netherlands, 20% of bicycle accidents do not involve any other user and are often linked to dangerous behaviour: riding under the influence, using a smartphone or excessive speed.

Read also

Tour de France 2023 route unveiled: Will it pass near you?

New type of traffic light aims to improve cyclist safety in France

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