Cycling is safe – depending on how you look at it
According to Momentum Mag, cycling is safe. I’m inclined to agree with that, but I think they are presenting a pretty bad argument.
They have provided a handy infographic to illustrate their point, and it looks like this:
Cycling is safe, because,
- “Cycling is no more dangerous than driving or walking”
- “Bicycle infrastructure and low traffic streets make cycling even safer”
- “The health benefits far outweight the risks (sic)”
- “Cycling is very safe when compared to sports too”
- “Places with safer cycling are safer for all modes of travel!”
I have to presume that the point of this infographic is to convince people to take up cycling or cycle more often and in more contexts. More specifically, to cycle as a normal mode of transport. This infographic, however, tells an incomplete story. This story is more than just a set of numbers. Traffic is a hugely complicated mess of social interaction. It is loaded with irrational feelings of entitlement, power, fear, and selfishness. It causes stress and brings forth anger. It dehumanizes. It isolates.
I bet that most of you have a picture in your mind right now of a driver in a car. Why? Most likely because that’s what driving does to you, unlike walking, which pretty much never does any of that – and which is a bit mind-blowing to consider, actually. At any rate, can you honestly say that you have not experienced all of these things whilst riding a bike? I have. With all of these things being applicable to cycling as much as to driving, telling people that cycling is safe because of a short list of numbers might not be all the ammunition you need to convince them. Let’s look at these five points one by one.
1. “Cycling is no more dangerous than driving or walking”
If we look at only the numbers, straight away this is completely wrong. Cycling is over twice as dangerous as driving. Of course, we are talking about 21 people vs. 9 people per 1 million trips, so the overall risk is still quite low, but to say it’s no more dangerous than driving is just false. What do I take away from these numbers? Riding a motorcycle is something only a complete moron would do (and let’s be honest…).
If we don’t look at the numbers and instead look at subjective experience, I can tell you that I fear for my safety about a billion times more often on a bike than I ever have in a car. And yet I still choose to ride… sounds a little insane when I put it like that…
It is interesting to consider flying and the fear that many have of it, and yet, flying is far safer than driving. Facts are rational, fear is not.
2. “Bicycle infrastructure and low traffic streets make cycling even safer”
I’m not sure why this is in an infographic about why cycling is safe. It’s not a reason why cycling is safe – it’s a reason why using a well designed road is safer than one that is poorly designed for cycling. We might as well just say that removing all forms of risk whatsoever makes an action safe. Enlightening. Aside from that, you obviously haven’t cycled where I have. If the roads were made safe for cycling, then we wouldn’t need this infographic.
3. “The health benefits far outweigh the risks”
Do the health benefits outweigh the risks when you are dead or lying in a hospital or splashed across the bonnet of a car? This statistic is undoubtably true generally, but it is unconvincing to the individual who has a justifiable fear of sharing the road with large, heavy, fast-moving weapons commanded by inattentive and impatient operators on roads that don’t cater for cyclists.
4. “Cycling is very safe when compared to sports too”
This is a false analogy. An injury sustained whilst cycling in traffic can almost always be written up to carelessness, and the risk is not, nor should be, simply assumed as something that necessarily comes with cycling for transportation purposes in traffic. Injury in sport, which often necessitates direct physical contact of a greater or lesser extent, and athleticism in general to a greater extent, brings about a much greater risk of injury, which is assumed to be a risk associated with sport, regardless of the intent of the action prior to injury. When two rugby players charge directly at each other head first, at full speed, with no helmets, it may in fact be accidental that one of them now has a concussion and a broken cheekbone, but you can’t say that he didn’t have it coming. This infographic is targeted at people using their bike in traffic, which I will assume is to encourage people to use their bikes for practical purposes, rather than recreational ones. Therefore, the act is not sport, any more than driving to work is at all the same as racing your car at the Nurburgring. Cycling feels more dangerous than other sports, so even if the potential for injury or death is no greater, or even actually less, that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the semi-truck that just passed you within inches.
5. “Places with safer cycling are safer for all modes of travel!”
Again, although this is a good and important point to keep in mind when attempting to sway governing bodies and non-cyclists to our cause, this isn’t a reason why cycling is safe.
Look, I’m with you, Momentum Mag. We need more regular people cycling as a regular mode of transportation. We need to get the word out that it’s a viable option, and that it has real and very tangible benefits to the individual, as well as to our community and planet. Unfortunately, this infographic is not a very good attempt. The perceived, and very real, feeling of vulnerability is a strong motivator of people choosing not to cycle, and that requires a change on a grand social and political scale. Hopefully, if this infographic manages to convince anyone to get on a bike and our numbers on the roads are bolstered, the social and political scale can be tipped a little further in our favour by the simple fact that more people are doing it, everyone’s a winner, and that’s wonderful. As it stands, though, this is about as convincing to me as telling an overweight and lazy slob that they should start cycling because it will save them a gym membership – I don’t think that the price of the membership is why they aren’t taking steps to get fit, and I certainly don’t think that showing hesitant-to-cycle-because-it-seems-pretty-dangerous people some, mostly irrelevant, cycling statistics, will fare any better.
Is there a reason why cycling kills more people than driving, and driving kills far, far, far more people than flying? Could it be that any idiot can ride a bike on public roads (even drunk, legally, in many places), fewer idiots can get a licence to drive a motor vehicle (though it seems like they’re everywhere), and only highly trained non-idiots can fly a plane? I know that there are many other factors behind these statistics, but it’s worth considering.
Header image: source