Jul 7, 2013

Does cycling on roads put your health at risk?

If you intuitively feel that cycling in traffic is dangerous you are probably right. New data on London indicates cycling on roads is a risky way to travel relative to other road-based modes

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Serious and fatal road casualties by mode, London 2012 (%). Source: TfL

I hear frequent claims that the dangers associated with cycling on roads are exaggerated. That goes against my intuition because I always feel much more vulnerable when cycling than I do when driving. My perception – and that of many others I speak to – is that cycling on roads is bloody dangerous.

New data released by Transport for London suggests my intuition is consistent with reality. A total of 671 cyclists in Greater London suffered a serious or fatal injury (a further 3,942 suffered minor injuries) over the course of 2012. That’s more in absolute terms than the corresponding total for cars, taxis, buses and trucks combined. It’s even bigger than the total for motor bikes/scooters.

Pedestrians are involved in a larger number of serious and fatal accidents but virtually everyone in Greater London is a pedestrian at some time or another in the course of a year. Cycling however accounts for less than 5% of road trips (fn 1) but, as shown in the first exhibit, for an extraordinary 22% of all serious and fatal accidents.

The second exhibit (via (Drawing) Rings Around the World) shows the trend in cycling casualties in London over the 33 years from 1979 to 2012. It’s evident they increased markedly over the last ten years, accelerating from around 8% of all serious and fatal injuries in 2003 to the current figure of 22%.

That of course correlates with the big increase in cycling over the last ten years in London, so it’s no surprise the absolute number of casualties increased. But it’s not so easy to explain the enormous increase in cyclist’s share of casualties.

It suggests that the “safety in numbers” effect for cycling is either a myth or, more likely, it’s a great deal more complex than is usually assumed.

It might be that the effect isn’t linear or maybe it only applies beyond a certain critical mass. Cycling might need to have a much larger mode share than 2% before the “safety in numbers” effect starts to have a discernible impact. Perhaps the curve starts slowly and only accelerates steeply when the mode share is very large.

Or it might be the effect only applies in cities where the majority of drivers also bicycle from time to time and hence empathise with cyclists. Another explanation could be confusion about causation – cities with large numbers of cyclists are also likely to have infrastructure and regulations that support cycling and “tame” motorists.

London is a more relevant example for Australia than Dutch or Danish cities because cycling is still a residual mode in the UK like it is here. Unfortunately I don’t have any data on exposure – kms or hours of cycle travel – to get a good sense of the odds of suffering a serious or fatal injury in London while cycling.

However 14 deaths and 657 serious injuries in a single year is way too many and is bound to have a serious deterrent effect on prospective cyclists (you might remember the tragic death of a cyclist during the London Olympics). London and Australian cities need to invest in infrastructure and foster a supportive road culture through regulation and education aimed primarily at truck, bus and car drivers.

Of course the risks of injury associated with cycling have to be balanced against the health benefits. Here in Australia I expect I’m still better off cycling in traffic – notwithstanding the risks – if I don’t exercise in any other way. I choose to cycle on roads but if I ever find it too threatening I, like most everyone else, have other options for exercise, not least simply walking places.

Update 1 (10 am 8 July): Boris Johnson’s “near-death experience while cycling.

Update 2 (10 am 8 July): The risk associated with bikeshare is much lower.

% all serious and fatal casualties suffered by cyclists, London 1979-2012. Source: (Drawing) Rings Around the World


(fn 1) If all modes are counted, cycling’s mode share is around 2%

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22 thoughts on “Does cycling on roads put your health at risk?

  1. Socrates

    There is a lot more to the cycling casualty rate than the fatalities. Ask any hospital casualty department how many cyclists they get per month and the number is large and growing. We have a problem in this regard, with inadequate infrastructure built in the past, and inappropriate infratructure being built now, aimed at appeasing the small number of fi cyclists who prefer to mix in traffic, but not suitng the larger number of new cyclists who are not confident to mix with traffic. In safety terms, we have gotten this all wrong.

  2. duke the lost engine

    The increased share of cycling casualties might be largely explained by:
    – the dramatic reduction in overall road casualities – UK road fatalities have almost halved since 2000 (see
    – a large increase in on road cycling in London, almost doubling since 2000 (see

    So the bad news may not be that cycling is getting more dangerous, but that it is not getting safer at the same rate. Given how much $$ is routinely spent making roads safer for cars, it seems like a lot more could be spent on cycle infrastructure. ( My feeling is that the same applies in Australia).

    (btw i am also often blinded by bright cycle lights – i understand the need for them on roads but they seem to do more harm than good on bike paths!)

  3. darren godwell

    and what of Strict Liability laws and their impact in reducing accidents?

    They are highly effective method of altering driver’s behaviour. They have been in place in most of western European countries for some decades.
    As long as the fault of most accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists are car drivers then blaming the victims really does excuse further bad/dangerous behaviour.
    Of course, bad behaviour isnt exclusive, however until cyclists start causing +80% of accidents then we should look to the actual fault and cause-bad driving behaviour of those people driving cars.
    PS Strict Liability laws are way cheaper, quicker & easier to introduce and all the other usual lists.

  4. mook schanker

    Saugoof, I understand your frustration with bright lights. I have my handlebar light pointed straight and not up into other cyclists eyes, my head light is pointed low so I can flick it up for cars as required. I admit they are bright and may be a nuisance to some riders however they also protect pedestrians when I ride on the bike path – I can see every one (god knows how other cyclists see pedestrians & oncoming bikes sometimes with a low lux light with zero infrastructure lighting). These issues are on top of cars who also can clearly see me. There’s pro’s and con’s I understand but the pro’s far outweigh the con’s IMO. Riders should also be considerate and angle lights away from other riders faces.

    I ride with night lenses (yellow things) to protect my eyes from startling from bike and car headlights as well as wind/debris.

  5. Karl

    Following on from my above point too, there’s barely any cyclists in Marseille either. Mainly small hatchbacks and scooters. Maybe it was my strange looking touring bike that made me stand out, but I seemed to get a lot of positive attention when cycling through busy streets there. People would really give me a lot of space when overtaking and move aside to let me filter through etc. It was amazing coming from somewhere like Perth where people seem angry when you filter past them…

  6. Karl

    @Saugoof I had the same experience while cycling around Marseille. Despite their reputation in France as being the most crazy drivers, they are also hyper alert and vigilant. You learn to go with the flow and always be ready for the unexpected.

  7. Saugoof

    As a bit of perspective, I have just come back from crossing the whole of Italy on a bike. Driving a car or riding a bike in Italy is a whole other world. At first it seems utterly chaotic and no one follows road rules. But I have to say that after about a day of acclimatisation, I much preferred this. I have no idea if it is in fact safer (it probably isn’t, sadly) but I certainly felt safer. Italians drive and ride with the constant knowledge that someone else is likely to do something silly. Just because you have right of way doesn’t mean you’re going to get it, just because it’s a one-way street doesn’t mean there isn’t someone going in the wrong direction, just because you’re on a busy road doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone double-parked on it, etc.
    From all that, I found that Italian drivers are far more alert and aware of their environment as well as, surprisingly, more patient with bikes than Australian ones. I feel quite safe riding a bike in Australia but I would still prefer Italian conditions here.
    That said, once you get to places like Calabria and Sicily you’ll start seeing some hair-raising overtaking maneuvers that made me glad I was on a bike where I can easily squeeze to the curb to avoid oncoming traffic.

  8. dingbat

    I’ve cycled tens of thousands of miles in both Sydney and London, and they’re pretty much of a muchness when it comes to the behaviour of drivers and risks to cyclists.
    The difference can best be summarised by saying that, when cycling, London drivers are aggressive enough to try and kill you, while Sydney drivers are stupid enough to manage it.

  9. Saugoof

    Alan Davies #12 That doesn’t really matter. When one of those bikes with ultra-bright light comes towards me it drowns out absolutely everything else. All I can see is that light. I can’t even see if there’s another bike with lights on behind that one, the path disappears, absolutely everything. After they’ve gone past me it then takes a second or two until my eyes adjust to the relative darkness again too.
    I usually try to block my eyes, which helps somewhat, but it means I’m riding one-handed and still nearly blind.

  10. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    I nearly hit a cyclist on the weekend. I’m not sure if it was my fault or his (I was turning right on an Amber light and he just kept going!!) I’m not a great driver, I know that and that’s why I’ve got P Plates. Driver instruction does include a lot of warnings about cyclists and I try to give them a wide berth if I can.

  11. Alan Davies

    Saugoof #11:

    I’m seeing more joggers with bike lights attached to their heads or clothes.

  12. Saugoof

    mook schanker #2 – You may think that having really bright lights are fantastic but I have a daily commute where I ride bike paths in the opposite direction to the majority of traffic (i.e. going into the CBD at night). There are few things worse on a bike than having another bike coming towards you with ultra-bright lights on a dark bike path. For some reason most people insist on pointing them at eye-level too. You’re completely blinded. This to me is a far more dangerous thing than not wearing bike helmets or not having a bike lane on a road. A few days ago I nearly ran into the back of a pedestrian, even though she was only some 5 metres in front of me and I’d slowed down to almost walking speed, but with an oncoming bike blinding me, that pedestrian was completely invisible to me.

  13. Alan Davies

    christoll #8:

    Usual caveats should always apply re extrapolating from a small sample of cities. Equally though, the whole world is learning from Amsterdam as well as from Melbourne and Brisbane’s experiences with mandated-helmet bikeshare.

  14. Karl

    A few points. First of all as a cycle commuter for 5 years now I’ll definitely agree that cycling in car-dominated cities like London or Perth can be hairy at times. I’ve already experienced one serious injury while cycling caused by an inattentive motorist (broken clavicle and joint damage). This is an even greater case for improving cycling facilities in these cities, in particular separated, off-road paths. For the past two years my commute to work has been along 90% separated shared path and I find it to be much more enjoyable, faster and safer than mixing it up with traffic on the final few hundred metres of my ride.

    I also agree that the increase in deaths and injuries is caused, at least to a large extent, by the dangerous mix of new, inexperienced cyclists and inadequate, dangerous infrastructure and roads design. I’ve seen quite a few cyclists doing some really silly things, e.g. riding too close to parked cars, riding with dark clothes and/or no lights etc. Mix this with impatient and reckless drivers and lack of good quality cycle infrastructure and it’s no wonder that there’s such a disproportionate number of cyclists being seriously injured or killed (look up Silly Cyclists on Youtube for examples!).

    We need a wide spectrum of ‘fixes’ to address this, being:

    1. Better driver training and education.

    2. Compulsory cyclist education and training through school PE classes (just like how we all have to learn how to swim in Australia during school).

    3. Better designed and extensive application of high quality pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure (e.g. segregated Dutch-style paths, dedicated traffic light signalling, allowance to rolling stop at stop signs and left-turn red lights etc). Of course this means that the Fed and State Governments need to put some serious $$$ towards researching, designing and building said infrastructure as the current amount of funding is totally inadequate and will never yield serious positive results.

    4. Better laws and legal liability in favour of vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists as is done in many EU countries.

  15. christoll

    I agree with Strewth: you can’t generalise from the London data because London is not a cycle-friendly city at all. I am a pretty committed cyclist, but I’ve long felt that I would never be willing to commute by bicycle there (or in the inner suburbs of Sydney for that matter). Conditions for cyclists – and thus also the safety of cyclists – vary enormously from city to city, with a large number of factors playing a part. I’ve lived in Berlin, Melbourne and Brisbane and regularly commuted by bicycle in all three, and I’d have to say that the city where I felt safest was actually Brisbane. Despite having relatively few cyclists and not much cycle infrastructure, Brisbane wins mainly because of its generously wide roads and the extremely useful bike paths and bike lanes that do exist. It might even help that there are fewer cyclists: in Berlin I often experienced the bicycle equivalent of road rage (“bike rage” perhaps?) because of all the idiots on bicycles, especially in the summer months. The fatal cycle crashes that I’ve heard about in Berlin have often been due to the foolishness of cyclists doing things like riding at night without lights on the wrong side of the street.

    Ultimately I think you can’t draw any conclusions at all from the data for just one city. If you want to know how safe cycling is in your city, you need data from your city. And it would be useful to analyse the causes of bicycle accidents too and find out how many are the fault of the cyclists themselves.

  16. Paul Oborn

    “…in cities where the majority of drivers also bicycle from time to time and hence empathise with cyclists”. That sums it up for me. I’ve always considered myself to be a great driver. No accidents, no speeding tickets. Always taking a defensive approach. However, after getting back into cycling after a 10 year hiatus, I now find myself LOOKING for bikes. I now realise I was only looking to see if the road was clear, but now I perform a separate check just for bikes. I’m certain the driver who also rides is a far safer driver. A shame that so many young drivers are coming through the system without bike riding experience. Maybe compulsory bike time before gaining a car license?

  17. James Steward

    I rode south of London, from Crawley to Brighton, alone and with the Crawley Wheelers over a 3 week period back in 1999. I felt absolutely safe the whole time. I don’t know if the middle of London would be any worse than the middle of Sydney or any other Australian city, but I don’t expect it to be considerably worse.
    What may explain the rise in fatalities is that there are many more novice bicyclists now than before, and consequently they are “easy pickings” for the grim reaper, lacking experience, competence and confidence.
    The same happens here, especially with the bike lanes marked next to parallel parked cars, whether the bike lane be to the right of the cars, or what Bicycle Network Victoria have foolishly promoted, being the Copenhagen style lanes to the left of the parked cars. Novice riders *feel* safe in the bike lane, and then get taken out by a motorist or pedestrian that failed to give way.
    BTW, pedestrians usually die when they step out on to the road in front of a moving vehicle. If they learned to cross the road with more care, there would be far fewer pedestrian fatalities.
    Similarly, if bicycle riders used lights and reflectors at night, light coloured clothes and did not fail to give way to oncoming vehicles, there would be a lot fewer bicycling deaths.
    That’s not to say cyclists are more often than not responsible for their own death, but a percentage certainly could do better.

  18. hk

    It is possible to build first approximation time based exposure rates between cars and cyclists using VATS, VISTA, ABS and supplementary data. Using TAC data for the 31 MSD Local Government Areas (LGAs), the first cut shows significant variation (by more than a factor of 5) in accident rates by LGA based on exposure times. Surprisingly the Melbourne LGA has far lower accident rates than the LGAs of Maribyrnong and Moonee Valley based on shared time on the roads by bicycles and motorized vehicles.
    Serious policy decisions on investment in infrastructure to bring co-benefits to health, well-being, accident reductions and the urban ecology are required to provide more physical separation of the bicycle network from motorized traffic.

  19. Dylan Nicholson

    The TAC does publish stats for all types of accidents on Victorian roads, and last time I checked the number of fatal/serious accidents for cyclists was roughly in line with their mode share, i.e. you were no more likely to have such an accident on a bike than you were in a car. I will admit though the probability of having a minor accident is a great deal higher – most regular cyclists I know usually have some sort of fall or scrape at least once a year.

  20. Alan Davies

    Strewth #1:

    Good point to caution against extrapolating from a small number of cities – I should’ve mentioned that myself. I’d still stick with my contention though that London is a more relevant example for Australian cities than Dutch or Danish cities, where cycling’s mode share can be getting on toward 40% (all purposes).

  21. mook schanker

    I agree, cycling is risky. The amount of attention required and assertiveness is immense compared to driving a car.

    I cycle every day and from a riders perspective I shake my head at a fair few (perhaps fair weather riders) who just ride aimlessly next to parked cars not looking for heads through car windows or not bothering to move a foot to the right to avoid a potential door swing, or not ‘taking’ the road when it is too narrow for car to pass.

    I also find that with two really strong front lights on my bike (on day or night), any chance a car sees me a split second earlier can be a lifesaver. Countless times I see cars put the anchors on in front of me. For some reason, ignorance I guess, most bikers go for the cheapest front light that is legal. Something to be said in educating riders to ‘ride safe’ as well as educating other road users of course.

    From a infrastructure perspective, for riders, one has to pick the ‘right’ streets for safer riding. It’s great when the council implements cycle ways but in Melbourne city, so far, there are too few roads that are more cycle friendly. Also, road infrastructure has to be specified and maintained to a standard that is cycle friendly. I hit the road a few months ago on a deep services pothole in the road, (could have fallen off into vehicular traffic).

    I used to cycle commute in London when living there and the bus lanes everywhere are great for cycling in (its allowed). The problem is you play a continual game of leapfrog that is pretty scary at times with double deck buses. When they built London’s streets it wasn’t really made for bikes & cars unfortunately…

  22. Strewth

    Alan, I’d hesitate to generalise so quickly from London to Australian cities just because we speak a common language and ride bikes at relatively low rates. London is a notoriously hostile cycling environment: there is next to no dedicated bicycle infrastructure, the streets are narrow and full of impatient motorists making complex manoeuvres at high speed. Cycling conditions in Sydney may resemble this, but it’s a different story elsewhere.

    Let’s at least examine some local statistics. Across Victoria, cycling fatalities routinely run at between 2% and 3% of total road fatalities, and cyclists represent 6% of transport related acute hospital admissions. By comparison, motorcyclists account for 16% of both fatalities and hospital admissions; pedestrians for 16% of fatalities and about 11% of hospital admissions. It’s a very different picture than that for London, probably due to the fact that in Melbourne and other Victorian towns we’ve found room on many of the roads to install bicycle lanes, and have also developed a fair bit of useful off-road cycling infrastructure.

    More detailed analysis from the 1990s found that cycling, walking and driving were all about equally risky or equally safe (however you frame it) per million hours of activity; travelling on public transport was an order of magnitude less risky and motorcycling an order of magnitude more risky. One expects that in the intervening period the risk profile for drivers has improved relative to that for both cyclists and pedestrians, but certainly not by the order of magnitude that separates them from public transport passengers. On the whole cycling is still a relatively safe activity in Australia – Sydney possibly excepted.

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