Absolute number of cycling fatalities on roads, Australia (source data: BITRE Australian Road Deaths Database)

The Guardian ran an article yesterday warning that cycling accidents are rising in Australia (1). The writer, Nick Evershed, notes there’s been “a spate of accidents involving cyclists in the last couple of weeks” and says it’s worth taking a look at the safety statistics:

Are things getting better or worse? In the past year and a half cyclists have increased their share in the road toll, due to a proportional increase in deaths in 2013 and 2014…In 2014 there were 26 deaths between January and May. There were 17 in the same period last year. So the trend points to a further increase in annual deaths.

He draws his data on cycling fatalities from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development’s (BITRE) Australian road deaths database. I’ve used the same source to create the exhibit, but I’m not persuaded it makes a convincing case that the risk of dying is rising.

It’s evident from the exhibit that the long term trend over the 24 year period from 1989 to 2013 was a significant decline in the absolute number of cycling deaths.

There was a dramatic drop in fatalities in the early years (1989 to 1992), coinciding with the introduction of the mandatory helmet law. Whether that was primarily because the law reduced head injuries, or reduced the number of cyclists, is contested territory (and isn’t germane to this discussion).

Even when those first four years are put to one side, the trend over the period starting after introduction of the helmet law (i.e. from 1992 to 2013) was also downward.

It’s true there was a substantial jump in 2013 in the number of fatalities but it’s a big call in the absence of corroborating evidence to say one year’s figure signals the start of a sustained upward trend.

The numbers move around from year to year. In fact just the year before (2012), the number of on-road cycling fatalities was the second lowest since 1989.

It’s also true the number of fatalities is running at a high rate this year. As Mr Evershed notes, there’ve been 26 deaths to the end of May 2014, compared to 17 over the same period in 2013. (2)

However care is needed in assuming there’s a trend based on such a short period. There were almost as many deaths (24) by the end of May in 2010, but the death toll at the end of that year was 38. That was fewer deaths than the annual average for the entire 1992-2013 period and much the same as the annual average since 2000. (3)

In any event, it needs to be remembered that the BITRE data shows the absolute number of deaths; it’s not adjusted for changes in the number of cyclists on the road. While Mr Evershed is right to say we don’t have good data on exposure, anecdotal evidence suggests the number of cyclists has started to accelerate in line with improvements in on-road infrastructure.

That surmise is consistent with Census data showing the number of commuters travelling to work in capital cities by bicycle increased by a whopping 37% between 2006 and 2011 (compared to 67% over 1991-2011). The BITRE data for the corresponding periods shows the number of cycling fatalities fell -17% between 2006 and 2011 (and by -41% over 1991-2011). (4)

It’s also worth noting that Olivier et al found the per capita rate of serious arm and head injuries from cycling crashes in NSW started to decline from around 2006 and continued until at least 2010 (the last year they looked at). They attribute the change largely to improvements in cycling infrastructure.

It seems to me the risk of dying while cycling on public roads in Australia is very likely improving in ‘real’ terms. I agree with Mr Evershed, though, that cycling is still a much riskier way of travelling on roads than driving.

As I noted this time last year (see Is cycling more dangerous than driving?), Garrard et al estimated the relative risk of being killed while cycling on Sydney’s roads over 2002-05 was around 11-19 times higher than it was in a car. It’s probably improved since then, but there’s still a pressing need for better infrastructure and reform of road law to support cycling.

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  1. Perhaps The Guardian’s sub editors are too busy to check, but the title of the article, Cycling accidents rising in Australia, is a little misleading. The article doesn’t discuss the trend in injuries; it only considers cycling fatalities, drawing on BITRE’s Australian Road Deaths Database.
  2. If this rate were sustained for the remainder of the year, 2014 would finish with around 60 cyclists killed on the roads. Fatalities haven’t been experienced on that scale since 1991, when there were 58.
  3. The period matters; in both 2010 and 2014 there were 21 cycling road deaths at the end of April.
  4. Bicycle Industries Australia says annual sales of bicycles exceed one million units. Garrard et al estimated that aggregate kilometres of cycling in Sydney increased from 488,000 per day in 2002 to 630,000 in 2005 (although the year-on-year variations were substantial).
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