Posted by: Ian | July 11, 2010

Danger

On Tuesday my Dad emailed me to tell me that the son of Anne, his partner, was struck on the head while cycling by a low flying pigeon. Although he was wearing a helmet, the percussive impact shocked him all the way down his spine and is causing him much discomfort. My Dad followed up on Wednesday with two bike-related stories from the local (Shropshire) news: there was this one about a cyclist who died after being hit by a car and this one about a cyclist who incurred a serious foot injury after sliding into a hedge trimmer. While the first and the last of these, though very distressing for the injured, might be classified by The Simpson’s Doctor Hibbert as “comedy traumas, or traumedies”, my Dad, who two days later sent me another cycling road death story, asked understandably, Do you ever wonder if cycling is the right sport for you? It looks very hazardous.

I decided to check the facts. In 2005 one cyclist died for every 30 million kilometres cycled. Given that I’m cycling no more than 10,000 km per year I’d be grossly unlucky (with odds of 1:3,000 p.a. and expected cycling years < 50) to die from it. Also cycling is getting safer, with the miles per death higher (and hence mortality risk lower) than it was in 1950, despite the fact that the roads (excluding motorways) now carry over seven times more traffic. Since 2005 the number of cyclists has risen yet the number of cycle deaths per annum is falling – there were 115 in 2008 and 104 in 2009 – supporting claims I’ve seen frequently that the more cyclists there are the more awareness there is of them, leading to increased safety. There are certainly far more car deaths than bike deaths and this site claims that it’s safer to ride your bike than to walk down the road.

I would like to see more firm evidence for some of the claims on the internet.  For example, I’ve read the assertion on a number of respectable UK-based sites, e.g. here, that cycling to work reduces the risk of dying prematurely by 40%. Checking on the source for this though, it turns out that it’s based on three studies in – guess where now – Copenhagen. Anyone who assumes that results on cycling outcomes in Copenhagen will carry straight over to, for example, London is an idiot. Our planners and health pro’s should rather start with the example of the Netherlands, where road deaths were cut by 54% in the last two decades of the twentieth century by a sustained programme of investment and legislative change. Traffic-wise, London is more like Casablanca than Copenhagen or Amsterdam and not all personality types are suited to cycling across it as their normal mode of transportation. Death and injury will be inflicted  on the inexperienced and the nervous by London’s bendy buses, Addison Lee cab drivers and Mad Doctor bike lanes.  But it suits me and I feel safe, probably inappropriately so. My only two notable bike accidents have been inflicted by animals rather than cars. Here’s a photo of my gen 1 Tricross, a few year now since it got kicked into oblivion by an uncontrolled horse. It has been languishing in our barn since the crash, accreting detritus from the swallows that nest there.

The sense of hazard is subjective. On the same day that I got the first of the traumedy emails I also had an email from Zoe who had just arrived in Dominical, Costa Rica, where she’s on a biology field trip with the school. Within a few hours of getting there her friend had incurred bruising from the violence of the sea, they had found it hard to swim back to shore because of the rip tides and a boa constrictor was spotted in the roof of their lodgings. She’s having a blast and I’m happily envious.

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