Dangerous cycling statistics

Apart from Mrs Taylor’s crash in Holland in September and a few spills of my own when mountain biking I don’t remember ever witnessing a cyling accident. Hilary’s recent Post was a reminder that cyclists do get killed on British roads, as was the Department for Transport’s publication last month of reported road casualties for 2009. 104 pedal cyclists were killed, at a rate of about 35 deaths per billion miles travelled. For car occupants it was 4.3 per billion and pedestrians about 40.

Cycling might therefore seem over 8 times as dangerous per mile than going by car, but of course bicycles travel less miles than cars, so by themselves those figures greatly exaggerate the apparent safety of driving compared to cycling. According to the DfT’s 2009 Edition of transport trends, the average person spent 225 hours travelling by car and less than 10 hours on a bicycle – 22.5 times less. A rough calculation suggests an hour on a bike is 2½ to 3 times as safe as by car.

That is for numbers killed. In 2009, 2,710 cyclists were killed or seriously injured (KSI) compared to 11,112 people travelling in cars. Cyclists travelled around five billion passenger kilometres and cars some 679 billion. Over four times as many KSI accidents were in cars but they travelled over 135 times as far, making the car over 33 times safer than the bicycle per mile, not the 8 times purely for numbers killed. Adjusted for time spent, cycling is about 133% as dangerous – one third more risky. Or something like that, on average. It isn’t much.

Perhaps my calculation is wrong and cycling is even safer. It depends on where the statistics come from. For every million hours spent cycling in the USA, the fatality rate is 0.26, compared to 0.47 per million driving hours. Driving a motor vehicle there is nearly twice as risky as riding a bike for a given duration.

Incidentally, in all three main modes of travel (driving, cycling, and walking) the average trip duration is 15-20 minutes. Time-based comparisons are therefore the most meaningful for the average person. I’ve never trusted averages anyway. Nobody is average, the circumstances of each cycling accident are different, and it doesn’t take much to be far safer than the statistical average.

The Government’s report states that road accidents have ‘contributory factors’ (causes). Driver/rider error or reaction and injudicious action account for the great majority and failure to look properly contributed to over 20%. At the lower end: “Cyclist entering road from pavement” was attributed to 9% of pedal cycle accidents and 3% for “Cyclist wearing dark clothes at night.” All this comes from the form filled in by the police when accidents are reported and it refers to the causes, not the actual victim. One assumes the KSI person is usually the cyclist in collisions between bicycles and cars but it points to human behaviour as the primary risk factor, not force majeure or Acts of God.

A high proportion of collisions between bicycles and cars occur at junctions, with drivers “failing to look properly,” and rural roads are more risky for cyclists than urban roads in terms of being killed or seriously injured rather than slightly injured (narrower roads, cars going faster). Experienced cyclists know this sort of thing already and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I do when I ride my bike in the UK:

  • Command my space on the road, taking primary position as required
  • Avoid large busy roundabouts and fast dual carriageways
  • When turning right on busy roads, consider stopping left and walking across
  • Lots of body language, arm signals, turning head back to look behind
  • Move out well before passing cars parked on the left
  • Never cycle in the car door zone and watch the actual doors
  • Sit up and maintain full human silhouette in traffic
  • When approached from rear at high speed on country road, move to gutter
  • Fit silver coloured rear mudguard that looks metallic
  • Never cycle at more than 25-30 miles per hour even on empty road
  • Assume car entering from left is going to knock me over (watch driver)
  • Assume car in front is going to turn left without indicating
  • Undertake very slowly and only when traffic is actually stopped
  • Don’t overtake long queues of slow moving traffic
  • Check bike is 100% functional before each trip
  • Wear a cycling helmet and cycling gloves

That’s a list sixteen precautions I take instinctively, not because of statistics. None of them spoils the enjoyment of cycling. Quite the opposite in fact, because I’m aware they make me a safer cyclist. I’ve read the statistics on cycling helmets too, and how wearing one is supposedly less safe. I ignore this advice because I prefer to go by personal survival instinct rather than someone’s calculations based on population averages.

Another statistic: cycling leads to a longer life (on average). There’s no need to go into that here. Info: what the European Network for Cycling Expertise has to say (PDF).

I’m not against statistics. Their usefulness – or not – always depends on how they are analysed and the conclusions drawn. Nothing much is served by reporting that: “8 out of 10 pedal cyclist KSI casualties were men, compared with around 6 in 10 pedestrians and car occupants,” or that: “58 per cent of all pedal cycle casualties were 16-59 year old male pedal cyclists, compared to 47 per cent for pedal cycle fatalities.”

‘Dangerous’ and ‘safe’ are relative anyway. The Himalayan mountaineering death rate is even higher than motorcycling so riding a motorcycle can be considered quite safe by comparison. Taking everything into account, I’m sure of one thing: for me, cycling is safer than not cycling.


A gentleman’s fall