Three researchers from the University of Auckland have just published a paper examining how cycling for transport in New Zealand compares in terms of safety with snow sports, rugby, horse-riding, quad bike, and home DIY. The authors conclude:
In terms of moderate injury, cycling is no more dangerous in a statistical sense than many recreational and every day activities, and in some instances is a good deal safer.
The paper, How dangerous is cycling in New Zealand?, by Michael Chieng, Hakkan Lai and Alistair Woodward, is published in the Journal of Transport & Health. It looks at injuries requiring an Emergency Department visit or leading to an accident compensation claim, but not fatalities (summary of paper here).
I’m not convinced the comparison with activities like rugby and snow-boarding is very illuminating and there are in any event serious measurement problems. The researchers are on firmer ground, though, when they argue the absolute risk of injury while cycling is very small:
Taking injuries that lead to claims (for accident compensation), we found these occur roughly 9 times in every 100,000 short urban bike trips; the chance of receiving an injury sufficiently severe to cause a visit to the hospital was similar.
They say that “if you rode a bike three times a week, most weeks, the chances are you would suffer one moderately severe injury every 70 years”.
So why, they ask, is fear of injury such a barrier to people in New Zealand and other car-dominated countries taking up cycling, given the statistical risk of injury is “unremarkable”? The answer, according to one of the authors, is cultural:
The bicycle has literally been pushed to the margins and the environment sends a powerful message that such use of the road is unusual, different, and is not valued. The transport norm is reinforced in other ways. For example, cycling promotion campaigns with safety-oriented messages such as “Share the road” have, perhaps unwittingly, strengthened the social framing of cycling as an activity that is inherently dangerous.
It’s an interesting question and I’d say the authors are on the right track. But there’s more to it.
I think the public debate in Australia in the 1980s around the helmet law also contributed to a heightened perception of cycling as an especially dangerous activity. The key thing here though is that it was the debate that moulded attitudes and ‘did the damage’, not the law per se; the controversy cemented the idea of cycling as risky. Even if the law hadn’t passed, I think cycling on roads would still be almost universally seen as dangerous.
Another reason cycling is seen as more dangerous than the numbers suggest could be the high frequency of relatively minor injuries suffered by cyclists – like grazes and bruises from falls – that hurt but don’t necessitate a visit to the emergency department or a compensation claim. There are very few cyclists who haven’t suffered an event like this. Perhaps these small injuries remind cyclists of their vulnerability and amplify the idea that it could’ve been a lot worse.
The behaviour of hostile and unthinking motorists towards cyclists is likely also part of the explanation. But in my view the main reason is simply that we’ve come to see roads as very dangerous for all users.
Consider that travelling by car is a lot safer than cycling; according to the authors, “the injury risk per million hours travelled is 75% less for motor vehicles compared with bicycles” (see also Is cycling getting safer?). Yet we still don’t think driving is anywhere near safe enough; we continue to spend huge amounts on initiatives designed to further improve safety.
These initiatives include designing roads and managing traffic to make motoring safer e.g. motorways, black spot programs. We also give enormous attention to improving the safety of motor vehicles e.g. seat belts, multiple air bags, antilock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, crumple zones. Now there’s a new generation of intelligent safety features being introduced like forward collision warning, automatic brake-assist, blind-spot warning, lane-keeping assist, active head restraints, and automatic tyre pressure monitoring.
It seems our threshold for an acceptable level of motoring safety can never be low enough i.e. it should be zero. So, if we’re prepared to go to inordinate lengths to protect motorists who already have the advantage of metal cages and various safety technologies, is it any surprise that cycling on roads is seen as too dangerous? Is it a surprise when the estimated relative risk of being killed while cycling on Sydney’s roads is around 11-19 times higher than it is in a car (see Is cycling more dangerous than driving?)?
The probability of suffering a moderate to severe injury from cycling three times a week might well be only once every 70 years as the authors contend, but it seems that virtually all of those who don’t currently cycle still see that as a risk too far.
The implication for policy-makers is there’s little value to be gained from telling existing and prospective cyclists their fear is irrational. The proper basis for policy is to focus on their sense of perceived safety, just as we do for motorists. That requires actions like constructing separate cycle networks (see Is it time our cities got cycle superhighways?) and, where road space is shared, placing restrictions on the behaviour of motorists e.g. one-metre overtaking laws (see Shouldn’t every state have a one-metre cycling law?).