Cycling is getting safer (source data: BITRE)
The long-term trend in the absolute number of cycling fatalities on roads in Australia is downwards; it’s stronger after accounting for the increase in the level of cycling. (source data: BITRE)

Back in June 2014 The Guardian published an article claiming Bicycle accidents are rising in Australia. The writer said there’d been “a spate of accidents involving cyclists in the last couple of weeks”. He went on to ask:

Are things getting better or worse?… 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.

I challenged the prediction of “a further increase” at the time, pointing out the long term trend in cycling fatalities is downward and that it would be unwise to assume a change in the trend from such a short period (see Is the risk of getting killed while cycling on roads increasing?).

So what’s happened in the years since? The exhibit adds three more years of data to the chart I created in 2014. The numbers are from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development’s (BITRE) Australian road deaths database (the estimate for 2016 extrapolates deaths at the end of August to the full year).

It’s evident from the exhibit that while annual fatalities increased in 2013 and 2014, the numbers returned to trend in 2015 and 2016. Of course there are short-term fluctuations, but the long-term trend remains downwards, whether the start is taken from 1989 or 1992 (the latter to allow for the introduction of the helmet law and strong road safety campaigns around 1989-91).

As I noted last time, the BITRE numbers refer to the absolute number of cycling fatalities on roads. It’s reasonable to assume the number of cyclists increased over the period e.g. the number of commuters travelling to work in capital cities by bicycle increased by 37% between 2006 and 2011.

Hence cycling has been getting safer in “real terms” as measured by the change in number of road fatalities relative to the level of cycling. It’s crucial to understand, though, that cycling is still more likely to lead to personal injury than travelling by public transport or by car:

Most drivers expect to at least have a minor bingle some time that’ll dent their car but cause them no injury; they might scrape the garage door or they might bump into another car. When cyclists have bingles – and bicycles are inherently more unstable than cars – there’s almost always some injury. It’s often just scraped knuckles or a grazed knee but always with the greater possibility compared to other modes that it could’ve been worse. Ten cyclists died on Victorian roads in 2014 and 386 suffered injuries serious enough to require them to be admitted to hospital. (1)

Some forms of cycling are intrinsically safer than others e.g. users of bike share schemes suffer much lower casualty rates than riders of road bikes (see Should cyclists need a licence to ride on public roads?). Some demographics are also less likely to suffer serious injury than others e.g. women. But overall, while improvements in infrastructure have helped make cycling safer, it still carries an unnecessarily high level of risk.

For many prospective cyclists, the sense of subjective safety offered by roads is too low for them to start riding. There remains a pressing need to build a lot more infrastructure and to reform the road law to redress the bias against riders.

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  1. Helmets get a lot of attention but most hospitalisations don’t involve head injuries.