Group of cyclists on quiet rural closed road in France
These cyclists are on a closed road during an event in France.

A friend of mine from London recently told me that she’d been cycling but that it was indoors because she didn’t have a “death wish”.

This is the first time I’ve heard it put in such emotive terms, but I know others who are nervous of cycling, especially on the road, due to fear of serious injury.

They’re not alone.

“Around 59% of non-cyclists in Britain feel that it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads”.

– Cycling UK

My friend’s comment upset me. Not because I think she should go cycling outside, that’s her choice. It’s her choice of words that bothered me. Now to be fair she may say that it’s only a “death wish” for herself due to her self-confessed lack of balance and coordination on a bike. But using a phrase like that implies that cyclists are inherently reckless or irresponsible to ride on the roads, or at least on the roads in London.

From there it’s a short, slippery slope to full-blown victim-blaming – telling cyclists who are injured in accidents that it’s partly their fault simply for being on the roads. Note, I’m not saying that cyclists are always blameless in collisions, but with less physical protection than motor vehicles we tend to be more careful to avoid collisions.

How risky is cycling?

The other thing which annoyed me about my friend’s comment is that it seemed like a misrepresentation of the facts. So I did some research.

Looking at RoSPA’s data from 2016, shows that 102 people were killed cycling that year in the UK and many more injured. The DfT summary shows 99 killed in 2019. When comparing this with other activities, it’s important to consider the rate at which those activities occur. 777 people in cars were killed in 2018, but many more people travel in cars than by bike, so that’s to be expected. The Full-fact website makes a good comparison to show the risks of injury and death while cycling is much greater per mile travelled than travel in a car. However it also shows that pedestrians are a slightly higher risk of death in road accidents than cyclists, again per mile travelled. Should we be telling pedestrians to wear helmets?

When you compare the overall risks of cycling with a range of other activities as this website does, it does not look especially dangerous. As I expected, it shows cycling is less dangerous than climbing or horse riding, but also rates as safer than swimming and fishing.

If we then compare these numbers of fatalities with the tens of thousands of premature deaths due to diseases caused or made worse by sedentary lifestyles, not cycling looks like the more risky option. Even when you take into account accidents and exposure to pollution, cyclists live longer than non-cyclists. Of course there are plenty of ways to get exercise without road cycling, but in practice it can be hard to fit them into a busy lifestyle. Cycle-commuting is a great way to get regular exercise as it replaces the daily task of commuting, which few people relish, with one that is healthy and more enjoyable.

Further discussion of the risks and benefits of cycling can be found in this excellent article from the NHS.

What if people think cycling is dangerous?

It seems clear that public perception of cycling is not in line with the statistical reality. There’s a regular media theme of the dangers of riding a bike without reasonable comparison to other risks, perpetuated by those who say things like cyclists have a “death wish”.

This saddens me as there’s a huge risk from the perception of cycling as dangerous. That is that fewer people will do it. Sure, some of them could do other forms of exercise which might be seen as safe, and these should be encouraged too, but for many people cycling is the most convenient or the only one they can fit into their lives. To neglect cycling means people will miss out on the mental and physical health benefits of regular exercise and lives will be lost. These aren’t dramatic deaths like being hit by a taxi and might be harder to measure exactly, but the loss of life from sedentary lifestyles is so much greater than the exact numbers don’t change the fact – a lack of regular exercise is much more dangerous than cycling.

For the people who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that the well-documented beneficial effect of increased physical activity due to cycling resulted in about 9 times more gains in life-years than the losses in life years due to increased inhaled air pollution doses and traffic accidents.

– “Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?” Dutch 2010 study.

There is also the fact that the more people who cycle, the safer it gets.

In a study of 115 cities in the US and Denmark, as well in 14 European countries, it was found that motorists are less likely to hit cyclists and pedestrians when there are more people cycling or walking. It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people cycling.

– ECF.com, https://ecf.com/resources/cycling-facts-and-figures/safety-numbers

So as a society we should be encouraging more people to cycle, not putting them off by saying that it is more dangerous than it is.

I encourage anyone to have a go at cycling and to take sensible measures to improve their safety. But, as long as they’re not breaking the law, they shouldn’t be judged irresponsible if they don’t do all these things such as wearing a helmet, for example. I think there should at least as much attention given to better road design and enforcement of traffic laws to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe while encouraging healthy sustainable transport.

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