We’ve all heard the claims before. Cycling is dangerous, and you are more likely to be hurt or killed on a bike than in a car, walking, or taking public transport. “The risk of suffering an injury in Sydney was 13-15 times higher for a cyclist”, while over in Victoria the “data does discriminate by severity and the results are broadly similar; the risk of a serious injury in 2008-09 was 12.9 times greater for a cyclist than a car driver”.
Over in the UK we get statistics of cycling fatalities being over 11 times higher than motorists, while “casualties” for cyclists are 40 times higher. Yikes.
On the other hand, maybe its the other way around?
And let’s go a little further and say that cycling is actually safer than most things we do every day, like planting flowers.
“More likely to be injured in an hour of gardening than an hour of cycling”.
Gardening! I say, cycling really is safe!
Mixed messages much? Why are we happy to say that cycling is relatively harmless when it suits us but freak out and say that we are being killed left and right by motorists all the time? Is it about actual safety, perceived safety, or something else?
Actual safety is rather hard to determine. Statistics, as we all know, can say a lot of different things. It just depends on what question you want answered and how you go about doing it. Just looking at the statistics, I would have to say that cycling is reasonably dangerous when compared to driving.
What does that mean? Not much, really. Nothing meaningful to me, at least. I’ve never been killed (that I know of), and I’ve never even been in a collision with a vehicle that has resulted in any injury at all (to me – my bike was a bit hurt). Do I think it can be? Sure. Am I comfortable riding in traffic? Not always, but I ride with that in mind. Many people aren’t comfortable to the point that they don’t ride at all.
Which leads us to perceived safety. Without question, most people will agree that cycling on public roads seems at least reasonably dangerous. Or, it has the potential to be, and that it’s because cyclists have nothing to protect themselves against errant or aggressive drivers except the due care of the drivers themselves. That’s not very reassuring.
The inherent difference between a cyclist and a vehicle in terms of size, mass, speed, and ability to sustain heavy impacts is enough to raise serious concerns in the mind of any person with a functioning brain – even if you’ve never even been close to being in danger on the roads – simply because that’s the reality of the situation.
It seems dangerous because it can kill or seriously injure you so easily, not only because it happens to people now and then. On top of that, and possibly of more importance, your safety isn’t entirely up to you like it would be with mowing the lawn, cutting vegetables in the kitchen, or even mountain biking.
It feels dangerous because you can die, and you are constantly reminded of this every time a motorist passes you too closely, brakes hard and late from a side street when approaching the road you are on, delivers a swift left-hook in front of you, or any of the other things that happen every single time you take to the streets on your bike that, had they happened just a tiny bit differently, could have ended up with you under their car.
Cycling may be no more dangerous than gardening in terms of injury rates, but even if gardening was ten times more dangerous, I would still feel more comfortable gardening because I can assess the risks and can make all the decisions regarding my safety from start to finish. If there was a real chance that a you might be attacked by a graboid when gardening, then I would be comfortable equating the risk of gardening with that of cycling in traffic.
There is a difference between dangerous and deadly. “According to a paper that looked at sports injuries, tennis is riskier than ‘outdoor cycling’ (5 injuries per 1,000 hours for tennis, 3.5 for cycling). ‘Rowing machine exercise’ came in at 6 injuries per 1,000 hours.” That may be true, but there is a tiny difference between getting tennis elbow or twisting an ankle, and getting dragged under a truck and driven over.
That’s the key. My safety is not entirely in my own hands. Not even most of it, and I think that is why people get so upset about things like Volvo’s LifePaint and helmet laws. The impotence cyclists feel (insert stifled laughter here) about their own safety is frustrating and scary. It’s threatening and disconcerting. People react strongly when they feel under threat, and this is one of those situations. When cyclists get a whiff of anyone even remotely suggesting that their safety, which already feels like it’s on a knife-edge, is up to them, all the while seeing motorists get away scot-free with killing and maiming cyclists and pedestrians, and have deal with infrastructure that is highly biased towards motor vehicles, they get reactionary and start making wild and unconnected claims like LifePaint is just a big conspiracy created by the motoring industry to push cycling to the periphery and beyond in order to reclaim the roads for their rightful owners! Huzzah!
Really though, I understand where they are coming from, and totally agree that focusing on helmets and bicycle registration is to confuse a precaution with the cause.
Where are we at then in regards to the original question? Is cycling safe, or isn’t it?
Well, I think the answer is yes. And no. You can argue both rather convincingly, but what gets me is the ease at which cycling advocates pick and chose from both columns at will, depending on the argument they wish to support at the time.
Upset that a distracted motorist can get away with killing another person with nothing more than ticket for a moving violation? Cycling is dangerous!
Want to encourage more people to jump into this gauntlet of concrete, metal and glass? Cycling is perfectly safe!
Want to know what my point is? Me too… what I believe I’m getting at is that we need to step back and think about how we are presenting ourselves, and cycling in general. We’re not doing ourselves any favours when we make aggressive claims from both sides of the fence. We’re not doing ourselves any favours when we start sounding like conspiracy theorists. We are definitely not doing the people who we want to convince to take up cycling any favours by confusing them with contradictory claims of cycling’s safety.
I know. What I am suggesting is pretty unrealistic. These headlines, these claims, and the points they are illustrating are what sell. People aren’t interested or don’t have the time or energy to invest into discussing the complex and interwoven layers that make up the topic of cycling safety, policy, and infrastructure. So we get headlines. Fodder for Twitter.
More than that, I’m not even entirely sure that it is possible to boil it down a more concise question or issue. Cycling is safe, as an activity, but it is potentially quite dangerous when done in traffic. It’s the people who are the unsafe element on both sides, but it’s the more dangerous vehicle that gives that unsafe element the ability to kill. Pedestrians don’t seem to be killing each other even though sidewalks/pavements are filled with stupid people everywhere.
So, in the end, perhaps I’ll answer the question “is cycling safe?” with, “yes, cycling is safe, but cycling around people with the ability to hit you with big heavy things is less so.”
And we have gone precisely nowhere. But we had fun getting there, right?
Tomorrow I’ll take the next step in this discussion…
Header image: source