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Monday 19 December 2011

Cycling is Safe

This one has been languishing in my drafts for quite some time, with both Vole O'Speed and As Easy As Riding A Bike sharing their own views on the issue in the meantime. Statistically speaking, cycling here in the UK appears to be surprisingly safe. Indeed, in the past I have focussed on this when talking to new and potential cyclists about their experiences of poor subjective safety. These statistics are also readily utilised by a vocal minority who  are ideologically opposed to the use of separation by mode for the prioritisation and protection of cyclists. As is often the case with statistics they only tell part of the story; whilst it appears at first that they show cycling to be a 'low-risk activity,' what they literally show is that the current sub-section of the population who choose to cycle are doing so relatively safely.

Like most other people who choose to cycle in the UK, when I cycle I do so in a hyper-aware state; I always expect the worst from other road users, I pre-emptively hover over the brakes when I see a car approaching a give-way line where I have clear priority and I plan my escape route for when that BMW makes a sudden turn without indicating. I am relatively fit, fast, I cycle in the optimal gear and I know precisely how much force I can put into the brakes before the wheel locks up. Put simply, the bar it set much higher for cyclists than it is for other road users because the road environment is inherently hostile for cycling. Most people who drive motorised vehicles, which are significantly wider, faster and heavier than bicycles, do not do so in a similar state of hyper-awareness. This is because there is simply no need; the vehicles and road environment have been designed in such a way that their operators are largely protected from the limitations of their own ability. The bar has been set rather too low for such inherently dangerous machines.

I have often thought that if some of the greatest minds of the 1950s were put together in a room and given  and nearly unlimited budget and the specific task of designing a road network to minimise the number of people choosing to cycle, without being permitted to explicitly make cycling illegal, the result would not be far off the current UK road network. The exceptional hostility for cycling which is designed into the UK road network is enough to prevent the vast majority of people from every wanting to cycle on it. The result is that those few who are willing to cycle on it are not at all representative of the general population; it is because this minority can cope with the road network as it currently exists that cycling appears to be a statistically safe activity.

In The Netherlands, cycling is statistically slightly safer than the UK. The difference is not as much as might be expected, which is often used as an excuse for opposing the construction of Netherlands-style dedicated cycle infrastructure in the UK. However, with a little context the safety statistics from The Netherlands start to appear much more impressive. By implementing road designs which are not inherently hostile to cycling, the section of the population choosing to cycle is much more representative of society as a whole. The majority of ordinary people, cycling without being in a hyper-aware state typical of UK cyclists manage to get around by bike and are still statistically more safe than the tiny minority of physically and mentally exceptional UK citizens who choose the bicycle. Next time there is a discussion about how safe cycling is, remember that in places such as the UK where cyclists are a tiny minority, the statistics don't tell you a great deal about how safe cycling is, only how safe cyclists are.


  1. Great post, especially on the hostility of road network design.

  2. "...physically and mentally exceptional..."

    I like your description. Most of my work colleagues think I'm mad for cycling, particularly when it is cold and wet, so I shall have to tell them I am just exceptional. I'm sure that will go down well in the coffee room ;-)

  3. The only objective way of viewing "safety" is I guess to take what you can measure scientifically. Statistics is a scientific discipline, but how statistics are interpreted or presented is often anything but. Another blogger this weekend illustrated this point neatly with the "safety in numbers" debate - does cycling become safer as more people cycle, or do more people cycle as it becomes safer? In most cases I suspect (the Netherlands may be an exception) there is not enough data to say which.

    The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation has data on its website, admittedly aimed at an argumentative position ie that helmet compulsion is, overall, inimical to the public health benefits of cycling, which supports the idea that cycling is safe - safer indeed than tennis or football, or walking (apart from country rambling) or travelling in a car depending on whether your scientific measure is casualties per km travelled or casualties per hour travelled.

    None of that helps with whether, subjectively as an emotional response, cycling on public roads feels safe, or indeed feels natural or pleasant, and whether it is important to society that it should. If you pose two key values questions: is ANY level of cyclist/pedestrian or indeed motorist casualties acceptable, and; are the various largely uncontested benefits of active travel eg improved public health, reduced pollution, less costly road maintenance etc, actually considered desirable by our politicians?

    On the first question it seems clear that most would confirm that the acceptable casualty rate on non-road public transport is NIL, ditto acts of terror. In both areas there is vigorous and indeed sometimes oppressive regulation to try and keep it that way. If you were to put the question about road danger, in a manner which brooked no prevarication, what answer would you get? Evidently, the honest response (hence the dangers of prevarication) would be “yes, I DO consider some pedestrian and cyclist deaths on the roads to be acceptable for the convenience of motorists”. Actually, that is not so very far from the position which Boris Jonson and the senior management of Transport for London have articulated following recent events at Kings Cross & Bow.

    On the second question, apart from a few whacko right-wing libertarians (of whom unfortunately there are a few in national and London government) and climate change deniers, I can think of no-one who would dispute that active travel benefits are desirable, so what is stopping them? I would say a major contributor to that inertia is (most) print media, especially the right-of-centre tabloids, all of which depend critically for their revenues on advertising, of which a significant proportion comes from the motor industry and related interests – car manufacturers, Big Oil, insurers, RAC/AA, etc. Two of the three biggest world industries (extractive, motor, arms) with the deepest pockets will inevitably exert a chokehold on press and therefore public opinion. What can advocates of a more active form of travel do in the face of this?

    Mind you, a few decades ago the anti-smoking lobby was probably in similar despair. How do you defeat big tobacco? Cynical answer, you don’t, you just make it move on to easier targets, but in the developed world at least, big tobacco has lost its magic and its power to enthral. Perhaps gradually, with the steep decline in young people acquiring a driving licence, and the stark choice of either-a-car-or-your-own-place they now face, there might be an attitudinal change, to the view that not only have the baby-boomers run off with the family silver of all the pension money, free higher education, cheap housing and unrealistically cheap and plentiful credit, but they have also kept the cars for themselves and yet they want to ram that set of adverse consequences (road danger, pollution, paucity of public transport provision) down our* throats along with all the others.

    * I’m afraid I mean their – I am by my generation one of the robbers, not the robbed.

  4. Well-written article with which I wholeheartedly agree. I have been cycling regularly for more than 50 years, 13 of which in the Netherlands. I learnt about UK roads the hard way: I was knocked from my bike by a motorist turning left across my path when I was 11 and had just started cycling regularly (approx. 4 miles each way to and from secondary school). The motorist didn't stop (because he was apparently unaware of what he had done) but was later apprehended and turned out to be a teacher at my school!

    The road layout where the accident happened could not have been designed better to encourage this sort of accident: essentially a y-junction where turning left without speed reduction is encouraged. I've just recently visited the location again and it is still the same, except for a difference in the colour of the road surface indicating that straight-through is the standard route. Either road-planners never learn or the policy is to drive cyclists off the road.

    That incident was a salutary lesson for me because, since then and like the writer, I have always been very aware of the traffic around me. Fortunately, I am still fit so that I can usually keep up with the speed of the traffic. The most worrying situations are where steep hills prevent me from doing so: nowadays I have to cycle regularly uphill on a 40-limit road (in a residential area!). Large coaches zoom past without slowing down; it feels like they are travelling at 50mph or more but I have no way of telling. In 12 years I have never ever seen a speed check on the road. Others (including schoolchildren) cycle on the pavement but I refuse to do that because it is illegal (and hence would undermine any protests I might make about driver behaviour) and means giving way at every road junction (in spite of rule 170 of the highway code).

    In the Netherlands, my cycle ride was a daily 15km each way, most of it along country roads and not on a cycle path. I never had a single incident involving a motorist: motorists are typically themselves regular cyclists or have children or grandchildren who cycle regularly. That's a massive difference.

  5. Nice article Chris.

    In some ways you don't have to look at it too scientifically... you say the Stats' for the Netherlands only show a slight improvement in safety...

    ...the significant point is that more people over there 'feel' safer and thus choose to cycle more often.

    A nitpick of our UK Statistics is that great big 'elephant in the room' I've mentioned to the Traffic Engineer on my local council a few times, namely that a road may well sound statistically safe due to having no Cyclist casualties...

    ...but that is more than likely due to the fact that nobody cycles along the road because it's too hostile. (He acknowledged that they don't take subjective safety into consideration)

  6. I find it funny how people who don't cycle go on about how dangerous it is, and how they knew someone who got hit or such and such. Yet something like 7 people die every day on UK roads, pretty much all of them vehicles, yet you never hear about them in the paper.

  7. Whilst I agree that all roads in the UK are designed exclusively for the benefit of motor vehicles I don't think that it is the case they always do a good job.

    If the safety of those in cars was a prime concern it would not explain the layout and design of a lot of junctions is terrible.

    I have only just passed my test and seem to be incredibly sensitive to junction design and road layout. If I am driving along I'm constantly thinking "What am I meant to do at this point?".

    I've encountered junctions onto A roads that look and feel like slip roads. Not until later did my girlfriend next to me say "That's a give-way at the end." Causing me to have to slow down a lot before I got to it.

    Other cases junctions are clearly made for it to be safe to traverse by car, and any other additional pedestrian or cycle facility is ill-thought and usually dangerous. Other times I think the planners just pop a couple of ecstasy tablets before putting pen to paper.

  8. I have cycled most of my life and currently do a 20 mile daily commute around Manchester. I too am in a high state of alert at all times, especially since I was clipped by the wing mirror of an overtaking car on the East Lancs. Road a few years ago.

    I have recently invested in a high visibility POLITE NOTICE vest as used by horse riders and this definitely has made a difference.

    I am still surprised to see some "Gung-Ho" cyclists travelling at great speeds in heavy traffic- Cars are very hard when they hit you.


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