Cycling as a mode of transport is growing in popularity throughout the United Kingdom. Statistics generated by the latest National Travel Survey (NTS) show that forty three per cent of Britons own or have access to a bicycle and over five million of us cycle at least three times a week.
The reasons for this renewed enthusiasm for cycling are fairly well-documented and relate principally to its healthiness, its environmental friendliness and its low cost. These clear advantages, however, are not sufficient to persuade everyone that travelling by bicycle is a realistic solution for them and we lag behind most of our European neighbours in bicycle use.
One major reason cited for this reluctance to cycle is that of safety, with an astonishing sixty seven per cent of Britain's non-cyclists saying that they believe that it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads. In this piece, we ask whether cycling is really as hazardous as many of us think, whether the risks outweigh the benefits, and we examine strategies for minimising the dangers.
Is cycling as dangerous as it is perceived to be?
Accidents involving cyclists often hit the news headlines and this factor is central to the public perception that cycling is an especially dangerous activity. In fact, Britain's roads are comparatively safe for bicycles. The following, for example, are the headline government statistics for 2012:
- 118 cyclists were killed (one every three days)
- 3,222 were seriously injured (around nine per day)
- 15,751 were slightly injured (43 per day)
Serious injuries are defined as an injury resulting in a prolonged hospital stay and/or a significant disability. The basic measure used by experts to judge cycle safety is "killed or seriously injured" (KSI). There has been an increase in the number of KSIs during the last few years. The Department for Transport (DfT), for example, calculates that the number of KSIs in 2012 was thirty two percent higher than the average recorded for the 2005-2009 period.
This rise, however, has to be weighed against the increasing number of individuals travelling by bicycle and the length and time of their journeys. The NTS contextualises the figures and estimates that the risk of injury from cycling in the UK is actually "1 injury per 19,230 hours of cycling."
Similarly, CTC, the national cycling charity, states that the evidence suggests that a person is more likely to be injured doing an hour's worth of gardening than an hour of cycling. Cycling Weekly magazine contends, therefore, that "Commuting by bike is much safer than many people think. According to Government statistics, one cyclist is killed on Britain’s roads for every 27 million miles travelled by bike - the equivalent to over 1,000 times around the world."
There are other widespread beliefs about cycling safety which can equally be challenged. For example, as the National Health Service (NHS) points out, a raft of newspaper features about young women being involved in bicycle accidents produced a perception that females were dramatically more likely than males to be involved in a cycling accident. In fact, statistics show that men and boys are far more likely to be involved in a KSI incident than women and girls.
Private research published in 2009 found that from 2005-2007, some eighty two percent of KSIs were male. There are, figures show, more male than female cyclists on the UK's roads, but even when allowances are made for this, the fact remains that males are nearly 1.4 times more likely to be killed and almost 1.7 times more likely to be seriously injured than females.
Research carried out by psychologists suggests that this over-representation of males in the KSI statistics springs from men being generally more prone to taking risks than women. The NHS points to a study undertaken in the Netherlands which found that male cyclists are "less likely to have lights fitted to their bicycles and more likely to run red lights at train crossings than female cyclists." There is an important exception to this over-arching rule, however, namely that women are more likely to be involved in a collision with a heavy goods vehicle.
Do the risks of cycling outweigh its benefits?
The general consensus is that the answer to this question is an emphatic "no." The NHS cites a Dutch study from 2010 which, using a sophisticated formula, set out to compare the potential benefits and risks of cycling. The benefits were described as being physical and associated with the known advantages of taking regular exercise, including reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke and even some types of cancer.
The risks to cyclists were identified as increased exposure to atmospheric pollution, mainly in large urban centres and on busy roads, and the risk of being involved in an accident. The study concluded unequivocally that the benefits of travelling by bicycle "far outweigh" the potential dangers, with regular cycling increasing life expectancy by up to fourteen months.
These are compelling reasons for embracing cycling, especially when added to the parallel psychological benefits which can include not only a reduced risk of depression and other mental illnesses but also improved mood and enhanced self-confidence. The earlier in life you start cycling, the greater the lifelong benefits, so encouraging children to use their bicycles is enthusiastically recommended by medical professionals.
CTC argues that "Cycling is excellent exercise (which) helps people meet recommended physical activity guidelines, improves mental health and well-being, and reduces the risk of premature death and ill-health." It adds that it can be incorporated into a person's daily routine far more conveniently than most other forms of exercise, "because it doubles up as transport to work, school or the shops…and it's much cheaper than going to the gym."
How do I minimise the dangers of cycling?
There are five key rules to improve your road safety and reduce the risk of your being involved in an accident.
- Always pay attention to your road position and that of other road users and remember that there are risks close to the kerb. For example, according to Cycling Weekly, passengers are more likely than drivers to open their door and knock you off your bicycle.
- Wear the appropriate clothing and ensure that your bicycle has the correct lights fitted. Research suggests that cyclists often imagine themselves to be more visible than they in fact are and that they are therefore involved in many avoidable accidents. Make sure that you can be seen clearly at all times of the day and in all weather conditions. There is much controversy about bicycle helmets and a spokesman for the DfT says that not only is this the most contentious issue he has encountered but that he still is not convinced either way as to whether helmets are beneficial overall. This is why it is not yet law to wear a helmet while cycling. More research is needed to establish their benefits and individuals should read the literature produced by the NHS, CTC, DfT and the British Medical Association for more information.
- If you are an inexperienced or novice cyclist, take time to practice in a park or safe rural space before venturing out on the busiest roads. It is equally worth considering a professional bicycle training course if you plan to travel in busy urban areas. On a related note, it is vital that you learn the Highway Code which applies to all road users, including cyclists. In addition to complying with laws and regulations, it is also important to observe road etiquette and treat other road users as you would wish to be treated. Clearly, you should never cycle after consuming alcohol or certain prescription medicines.
- Learn about the roads you plan to use. For example, do you need to be extra vigilant about filtering through traffic in certain areas or are there accident hot spots that will need navigating?
- Maintain your bicycle. Faulty brakes and gears are responsible for significant numbers of cycling accidents. By failing to maintain your bicycle, you risk injuring yourself and others and will be liable for any collision or incident that is proven to result from your negligence.
To conclude, whilst there are dangers involved in travelling by bicycle, there are huge health, financial and environmental benefits which make it an excellent lifelong transport and exercise solution. It is considerably safer than we generally suppose and can be safer still if we follow the above guidelines.