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Rural A roads are where cyclists are most likely to be killed, road.cc analysis reveals

Insurer NFU Mutual has launched a rural road safety campaign – but it is on busier countryside roads where bike riders face greatest danger

A BBC article published today under the headline, Cyclist deaths soar on rural roads in England, highlights an increase in the number of riders killed while riding in the countryside during 2020, and coincides with the launch of a campaign called Rural Road Safety by specialist country insurer NFU Mutual. Analysis of official data by road.cc, however, shows it is specifically rural A roads, rather than those one might think of as country lanes, where the main danger to cyclists lies.
 
The BBC article refers throughout to casualties in England – although in fact, the data, sourced from reported road casualty statistics published annually by the Department for Transport, cover Great Britain and thereby also include Scotland and Wales.
 
After four years when the number of cyclists killed on Britain’s roads was static at around the 100 mark each year, last year saw a big jump in the number of fatalities, which rose to 141.

> Cyclists the only road users for whom deaths rose in 2020 – but fatality rate fell by distance ridden

While an increase in fatalities might be expected given the huge growth seen in cycling during lockdown, that also needs to be balanced against big drops in motor traffic in 2020.

First, here is the data for the number of cyclists killed each year between 2016 and 2020, broken down by whether the fatal crash happened on an urban road, on a rural A road, or on some other rural road.

GB reported cyclist fatalities, by type of road, 2016-20

The spike in deaths in 2020 is clear from that chart, and what is also noticeable is that other than in 2018, when three more cyclists lost their lives on urban roads rather than rural ones, in other years it is on the latter where the majority happen – and, increasingly, on rural A roads, as highlighted in the following chart, which show the same data but expressed as percentages.

GB reported cyclist fatalities, by type of road and percentage, 2016-20

The DfT also provides information on distance travelled, by type of vehicle.

All modes of motor transport had been trending upwards between 2016-19, before seeing a sharp drop in 2020 compared to the previous year – falling by 19 per cent on urban roads, 24 per cent on rural A roads, and 18 per cent on other rural roads.

Cycling was the only mode of transport to show growth as the pandemic took hold, helped by being a permitted form of outdoor exercise and with people encouraged to take to their bikes due to quieter roads.

But as this chart shows, it was on urban roads and other rural roads where that growth was concentrated – with a minimal increase in aggregate miles ridden on rural A roads, which accounted for 4 per cent of distance travelled in 2020 but, as we have seen above, 29 per cent of cyclist fatalities.

There is a caveat, of course, that of all modes of road transport, cycling is the one where it is most difficult to accurately assess the aggregate distance travelled by all users throughout the year.

GB billion miles cycled, 2016-20

With that caveat in mind, comparing the annual aggregate distance ridden against which type of road cyclists were killed on does enable us to calculate fatality rates, and a stark picture emerges, as highlighted in the following chart.

GB reported cyclist fatalities, by billion miles cycled and type of road, 2016-2020

While urban roads and other roads in rural areas have been trending fairly flat over the past five years, it is clear that per aggregate distance ridden on them, it is on rural A roads that cyclists face the biggest risk of being killed – specific factors behind this being likely to include the speed motorists are driving at, the type of vehicles, and lack of cycling infrastructure.

NFU Rural Road Safety campaign

Launching its campaign on a dedicated microsite that has the heading Sharing the road. Respecting others – terms that are regularly used in such campaigns but which ignore that some road users are more vulnerable than others – NFU Mutual says:

Our aim is to make rural roads a safer place to be for anyone who lives in, works in, or visits the countryside - from motorists, motorcyclists and agricultural vehicle drivers to horse riders, pedestrians and cyclists.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with The British Horse Society, British Cycling and THINK! - the UK Government’s road safety campaign – to try to reduce the risks for all rural road users.

Less Traffic. More Danger.

You are more likely to be involved in a fatal accident on a rural road than an urban road.

The campaign website includes advice sheets for motorists, runners and walkers, horse riders and, yes, cyclists, the latter saying:

Over recent years, cycling has seen a surge in popularity, particularly during periods of local and national lockdowns, with quieter roads tempting many of us to dust of our bikes and take to the road.

The benefits of cycling are far reaching and include improved physical fitness and mental wellbeing. In addition, cycling is a clean, green mode of transport, and can also be enjoyed socially with friends and family.

Britain’s rural roads are an ancient and special network that are a joy to cycle. However, whilst cycling on rural roads can feel liberating, safe and relaxing, it’s important to remember that you’ll be sharing the road with local people and other visitors. Routes through the  countryside often include narrow, winding roads with no markings, high hedges, poorly maintained  road surfaces and soft verges. And with increased cycle traffic on rural roads comes increased pressure on cyclists and fellow road users to stay safe and respect one another.

It also quotes advice from British Cycling Policy Manager Nick Chamberlain on staying safe on rural roads, as follows:

Ride defensively but respectfully – on narrow, winding country lanes it’s important that you don’t ride in the gutter. Instead make sure you ride in a visible position away from the edge of the tarmac. If you’re aware of vehicles waiting behind you, pull in only when you consider it is safe to do so and if the speed limit will allow a safe overtake
Be considerate of the needs of other road users – when riding in small or large groups you can ride two abreast and it’s often safer to do so, particularly in larger groups or when accompanying children or less experienced riders. Be aware of drivers behind you, allowing them to overtake (e.g. by moving into single file) when you feel it is safe to let them pass
Be particularly careful around junctions – especially those where minor rural roads meet busier, higher speed A roads. Junctions are places of potential conflict and so caution is crucial when navigating them
Wear the right clothes – in the mixed light and weather conditions that are typically encountered during a daytime ride in the UK, there’s no one type  of clothing that will ensure you’re seen at all times. Fully reflective garments can be washed out in flat daytime light when there are no headlights to bounce off them. Even hi-vis, in certain light conditions, isn’t  a guarantee of being seen. The key is to be sensible and reactive to the conditions. To enhance your visibility, moving body parts, such as your feet and hands, are the most effective to make bright and seen
Light your way – if you know that your route includes long tunnels, sections with overhanging trees or if you just want to stand out a bit more, you might want to consider running lights during the day. Also, if you’re heading out in the late afternoon or evening and there’s a chance your ride might overrun, you should have lights with you and, if you’ve got them, why not have them on?
Consider the communities you are cycling through  – remember that the countryside is a working landscape and home to many. Be considerate of these residents and remember that you are a visitor to places  that  others  call  home.

Much of that is sound advice, of course, and we’re supportive of any initiative that aims to make the roads safer for people on bikes, but let’s not be under the impression that this campaign covers all rural roads – as that passing reference to taking special care at junctions “where minor rural roads meet busier, higher speed A roads,” it ignores those very roads where, as the statistics we have highlighted above clearly demonstrate, cyclists face the greatest risk of being killed.

A campaign aimed at motorists to make them drive more safely when sharing those rural A roads with people riding bikes would be most welcome – but will we see one any time soon?

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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30 comments

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bobrayner | 2 years ago
1 like

Are there any stats on fatalities which weren't on a "road" at all?

My better half frets about the kind of single-vehicle scenario where I fall off a farm-track or bridleway, bash my head on a boulder, and die before anybody finds me.

I've certainly had a few minor incidents - more than on the road - but my gut feeling is that they're all lower risk (get up, brush off the mud, and continue riding) - whilst if something goes wrong on the road there's a much bigger risk of getting squashed by a few tonnes of steel and you might not get up after that.

The minor road / A road divide fits my prejudices, as I assume the A-roads have higher volumes and higher speeds and more multiple-vehicle interactions (cheeky overtakes &c). It can be unnerving when you meet Farmer Giles coming the other way on a tiny rural lane, but it's harder for that to become a fatal crash.

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chrisonabike replied to bobrayner | 2 years ago
0 likes
bobrayner wrote:

Are there any stats on fatalities which weren't on a "road" at all?

My better half frets about the kind of single-vehicle scenario where I fall off a farm-track or bridleway, bash my head on a boulder, and die before anybody finds me.

I've certainly had a few minor incidents - more than on the road - but my gut feeling is that they're all lower risk (get up, brush off the mud, and continue riding) - whilst if something goes wrong on the road there's a much bigger risk of getting squashed by a few tonnes of steel and you might not get up after that.

The minor road / A road divide fits my prejudices, as I assume the A-roads have higher volumes and higher speeds and more multiple-vehicle interactions (cheeky overtakes &c). It can be unnerving when you meet Farmer Giles coming the other way on a tiny rural lane, but it's harder for that to become a fatal crash.

Not sure about the UK, they'll likely be in our general stats and not sure you'd find them in that. However since the Netherlands has a great deal of "off-road" infrastructure as a first approximation you could look there. Source data here:

https://www.cbs.nl/en-gb/news/2021/15/610-traffic-deaths-in-2020

Some useful commentary here:

https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2020/07/28/road-fatalities-declined-in-the-netherlands-but-less-for-cycling/

You won't be able to use the figures direcly because there are plenty of shared streets and also interactions with motor vehicles. Indeed junctions are still the most dangerous locations I believe. But you might be able to get out some "narrative" e.g. the average incidence of single-cycle accidents etc.

As others have said there are lots of factors possibly affecting the A road numbers. They're also variable in character. Common factors are they are often outside urban areas so often poorly lit, have more things in the road (animals etc.), have a different mix of vehicles and indeed drivers in them, have to fit "the countryside" so may be poor from a safety point of view e.g. sudden changes in direction / elevation and poor sight-lines, have less "observation" / police so may see more risky behaviours like speeding / drink driving / phone use, may often be empty of other vehicles thus encouraging high speeds / not looking out for others, accidents may not be observed and reported quickly and it may take longer for help to arrive / to reach hospitals etc.

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HoarseMann | 2 years ago
4 likes

I find a good way to evaluate a piece of advice, is to flip the wording to state the alternative. If it sounds ridiculous, then the advice is pointless. Let's have a go here:

Quote:

Consider the communities you are cycling through  – remember that the countryside is a working landscape and home to many. Be considerate of these residents and remember that you are a visitor to places  that  others  call  home.

Consider the communities you are shopping in - remember that the town is a working metropolis and home to many. Be considerate of these residents and remember that when you leave the countryside, you are a visitor to places that others call home.

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chrisonabike replied to HoarseMann | 2 years ago
4 likes
HoarseMann wrote:

I find a good way to evaluate a piece of advice, is to flip the wording to state the alternative. If it sounds ridiculous, then the advice is pointless.

Ah - Hoggart's law of the ridiculous inverse. My favourite!

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Tom_77 | 2 years ago
1 like

You can view road casualties on a map here - https://www.think.gov.uk/thinkmap/

Click Filters, Casualty Details if you only want to show cyclists. At the moment the data only goes up to 2019.

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iandusud | 2 years ago
7 likes

Sadly and worryingly there are drivers who think that a 60mph speed limit indicates the speed at which it is safe to drive. As already mentioned this is of course not the case, but those that think it is see anyone who is travelling any slower to be a hazard depriving them of their "right" to drive at 60mph, leading to aggresive behaviour. In fairness I find the vast majority of drivers to be considerate when I'm cycling. It is the above mentioned, self entitled ones, that represent a huge danger. 

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brooksby replied to iandusud | 2 years ago
7 likes
iandusud wrote:

Sadly and worryingly there are drivers who think that a 60mph speed limit indicates the speed at which it is safe to drive.

Worse than that - there are many motorists who think the 'speed limit' is there as the target (regardless of weather, traffic density, etc).

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chrisonabike replied to brooksby | 2 years ago
3 likes

MSL = minimum speed limit. Hence the stress on drivers - trying to keep exactly on the line. Too slow and they're beeped, too fast there's a risk that the GATSO cash-cow milking machines might flash at them.

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TheBillder replied to chrisonabike | 2 years ago
3 likes
chrisonatrike wrote:

MSL = minimum speed limit. Hence the stress on drivers - trying to keep exactly on the line. Too slow and they're beeped, too fast there's a risk that the GATSO cash-cow milking machines might flash at them.

It's amazing how few hard-pressed motorists can't avoid being milked for cash by cameras by just, er, not breaking the law.

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IanMSpencer | 2 years ago
4 likes

The A road is one of the great "ride two abreast" dilemmas. Some are wide enough that traffic can readily pass a single file without particularly troubling the white line. However, plenty require pinching a few inches, so that's when you get motorists relying on oncoming traffic easing across. That can go horribly wrong when HGVs meet, or oncoming traffic think it might be a laugh to put some manners on a cyclist by holding the lane (you can see the body language of cars quite often), or simply being inattentive, surpringing the passing motorist into a closer pass than they predicted. You'll still get passed by someone with their hand on the horn and cutting in when you are single file just because you are a cyclist.

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HoarseMann | 2 years ago
8 likes

Hmm, on the NFU's webpage they seem to have advice for motorists visiting the countryside, cyclists, horse riders and pedestrians - but glaringly missing - farm vehicles!

Some of the worst drivers on rural roads are behind the wheel of a tractor or large machinery. For a start, they could recommend that tractor drivers come to a complete stop when passing oncoming vulnerable road users on a narrow lane. Letting the more vulnerable vehicle negotiate their way past a stationary tractor is far safer.

Also, they need to drop the bit about the countryside being 'their home'. Pretty sure country dwellers will frequently visit towns to go shopping etc. Works both ways!

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Secret_squirrel replied to HoarseMann | 2 years ago
1 like

Really? Do you have any evidence for your statements or is that just your own particular biases showing?  Tractor drivers are probably on the receiving end of a good chunk of stupid passes themselves. 

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Captain Badger replied to Secret_squirrel | 2 years ago
4 likes
Secret_squirrel wrote:

Really? Do you have any evidence for your statements or is that just your own particular biases showing?  Tractor drivers are probably on the receiving end of a good chunk of stupid passes themselves. 

Perhaps, although they are well-protected. In addition those exposed heavy tread wheels are a facking menace. I'd limit any tractor to 10mph

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HoarseMann replied to Secret_squirrel | 2 years ago
4 likes

Point is, their safety advice is extremely one-sided, with no consideration to what farm traffic could do better.

Not sure I'm biased (farmist?!), but I certainly have experienced some very dangerous driving from farm traffic. I am mindful it's their job and try to pull over so not to hold them up, but often you don't get the chance and they just barrel past with those huge tyres inches away.

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Flintshire Boy replied to HoarseMann | 2 years ago
4 likes

Agreed. Many - not all, by any means - think that because they are working, and in 'their countryside', that something as 'insignificant' as a cyclist had jolly well better get out of their way.

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wycombewheeler replied to HoarseMann | 2 years ago
4 likes
HoarseMann wrote:

Also, they need to drop the bit about the countryside being 'their home'. Pretty sure country dwellers will frequently visit towns to go shopping etc. Works both ways!

Similar to covid, when country dwellers didn't want people cycling or walking in their area, but thought litttle of crowding into shops in towns themselves

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Simon E replied to HoarseMann | 2 years ago
4 likes

There are, not surprisingly, good and bad among agri vehicle drivers just like everyone else. However, the bad can be terrifying! And I'm afraid it's a fact that a significant proportion of tractor drivers I see do drive 'like they own the road'.

HoarseMann wrote:

they need to drop the bit about the countryside being 'their home'. Pretty sure country dwellers will frequently visit towns to go shopping etc. Works both ways!

But they OWN the countryside - all of it! You and I are merely guests, or perhaps intruders, on THEIR land, THEIR space. The NFU and other farming / shooting / so-called 'countryside' organisations all take that stance, that townies are aliens.

I've seen that same rhetoric for decades now. If you read the farming press (as I do, I work in the agri sector) there is a massive sense of entitlement. Farming is not an easy life, but the NFU is a lobby group for big agri-business that wants to protect the status quo.

But farms have had to merge to survive so farmers are a tiny minority of the population, even in a county like Shropshire. The majority of rural dwellers here are typically SUV drivers with well-paid white collar occupations. Everywhere you look there are pretty barn conversions, modernised Rectories and huge new builds with triple garage, long driveways and land etc (planning consent is not an issue). There are a surprising number of private schools locally. Plumbers and sparkies are never short of well-paid jobs.

Farm vehicles, which have got bigger, more powerful and heavier, do more damage to unclassified roads than everyone else added together. Most of the bridge strikes I've seen (which invariably require a full road closure to repair) are caused by tractor drivers.

However, returning (finally) to the topic - on the county's A-roads the main problem, the one causing those deaths and scaring the shit out of people, is not tractors and combines, it is impatient people driving cars too fast.

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HoarseMann replied to Simon E | 2 years ago
3 likes

Spot on. Although I would also add distracted, drugged and drunk drivers to the speedsters too. It's easy to spot a distracted driver and I see a lot of them.

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OldRidgeback | 2 years ago
11 likes

Rural A rounds with a single lane in either direction have the highest risk for all road users, not just cyclists. Motorcyclists, car occupants and truckers are also at risk. The DfT data is pretty clear on that. That so many have a 60mph speed limit is of concern. A head on crash between two vehicles both travelling at 60mph in an overtake gone wrong is going to be catastrophic as you can imagine.

I know my way round North Kent quite well and there are plenty of rural A road stretches there I know with 60mph limits, but where you'd have to be nuts to think of going over 30mph.

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Simon E replied to OldRidgeback | 2 years ago
4 likes
OldRidgeback wrote:

Rural A rounds with a single lane in either direction have the highest risk for all road users, not just cyclists.

 

Sadly, this is not at all surprising.

Most of the radial roads around Shrewsbury are very unpleasant to ride on - they are often extremely busy but the main issue is that so many drivers are incredibly impatient. My workplace is next to one of these roads on a short straight and leaving work at 5 o'clock is a real gamble. There have been head-ons, rear-ends and so many near misses due to idiots overtaking when they can't see the road ahead properly. 2 of my colleagues stopped cycling to work because of it, one of them had a near miss with an oncoming driver overtaking another car. None of the others would ever consider cycling along that road.

Fortunately for me there is a quiet back lane a few yards from the gateway and I can take the much quieter and more scenic route home. Any weekend riding routes are planned to avoid these arterial roads or I get out early on Sundays while there is less traffic.

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Sriracha replied to Simon E | 2 years ago
5 likes

You've pretty much described why I, and I suspect a great many other people, despite a love of leisure cycling, nevertheless drive to work. If the government wants cycling to replace car journeys they will have to make the routes we have little choice over using safe for cyclists.

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OldRidgeback replied to Simon E | 2 years ago
1 like

The most recent time I was in the area I was on my motorbike. I remember the roads as being pretty busy with car traffic and I appreciate they wouldn't be great for cycling along. On my motorbike I pootled along with the cars most of the time as the traffic was too heavy and the roads too narrow for overtakes.

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ooldbaker | 2 years ago
3 likes

For me there is a great difference within the category rural A roads.

I have two to choose between to get to Dorchester from my village .The A37 is a trunk road. No frills just a means to get from A to B. Cars think they own the road and feel no connection to the locations along the way.

In contrast the A352 is a pretty road but annoying to drive along if you are in a hurry. However as you travel along it you feel a connection with the villages and communities along the way. As a cyclist you can still be passed by lorries and buses etc. but they will be far more patient and friendly that any you see on the A37.

If there are casualties on the road (not just cyclists)in Dorset they are usually split between the urban areas of Bournemouth, Poole, or Weymouth or alternatively about 3 "rural A roads" the A30, A35, and A37.

If you stick to the slightly quieter roads you are much safer than urban riding, If you stray onto the busy A roads you risk putting the average for "rural roads" up higher than urban ones.

If you stick to country lanes and smaller roads you are, in my opinion, as safe as you can get. I worry more about the wildlife than the vehicles.

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OldRidgeback replied to ooldbaker | 2 years ago
3 likes

Some rural A road stretches like the Macclesfield-Buxton (Cat and Fiddle run) are notorious for crashes and have reduced speed limits and a frequent police presence as a result, not that road deaths have been eliminated there.

It's a challenging stretch of road and you get lots of hot hatch fans and sportsbike riders battering along it at speed for fun. It only takes a small mistake to crash and it's unforgiving road, with stone walls and steep drops along the route.

It's not unpopular with cyclists too. 

I've ridden my sportsbike along it many times, but I took care to stick to the posted limits. It's still fun.

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wycombewheeler replied to ooldbaker | 2 years ago
2 likes
ooldbaker wrote:

If you stick to the slightly quieter roads you are much safer than urban riding,

And yet the data shows twice as many fatalaties per billion miles travelled on urban roads as on rural non A roads

15.7 deaths per billions miles on urban

31.8 rural non A

195.7 rural A

I would not be surprised if injuries per million miles traveled is lower on rural non a roads than on urban roads.

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Sriracha | 2 years ago
7 likes

No great surprise, rural A roads are the ones I avoid at all cost.

Typically they are two lane and have not grown in width since they were built, unlike the motor vehicles which now fit with only inches to spare. They are heavily used, the drivers are on a mission, and there is nowhere to overtake. It is a recipe for death on a bike, simple as.

By the looks of the graph, every other cyclist knows this too. I'm assuming most of the cycling increase in 2020 was elective, and clearly the rural A roads are the ones cyclists did not elect to ride.

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Rendel Harris replied to Lance ꜱtrongarm | 2 years ago
15 likes
Garage at Large wrote:

Edit omg nearly forgot, Farage Trump interview is on GB News now, what am I doing?

Getting aroused, one would imagine.

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Eton Rifle replied to Rendel Harris | 2 years ago
6 likes

Boo will double their viewing figures on his own.

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Flintshire Boy replied to Eton Rifle | 2 years ago
0 likes

Dear Lord - ignore the facts, just keep spouting dem old prejudices, eh?

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chrisonabike replied to Flintshire Boy | 2 years ago
0 likes
Flintshire Boy wrote:

Dear Lord - ignore the facts, just keep spouting dem old prejudices, eh?

You forgot the quotes - it's "facts". Fake news. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump here, don'tchaknow?

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