Flashback Friday – Is Cycling Safe?

Seven years ago, we had one of those unfortunate situations when suddenly there were two cycle deaths in close proximity. They are thankfully rare but they do get many people questioning the relative safety of cycling. This article, originally posted in Mar 2013, looks into the reality behind the perception of cycle safety; with a bit of a bike revival happening at present, it’s a good time to recall this…

It seems that lightning does strike twice sometimes. In just over three days, we have had two cycling fatalities in east Christchurch, first on Sunday and then today, Wednesday morning. Our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the two deceased.

At least we can replace bikes…

When events like this show up in the news, it is easy to get very worried about our own mortality when out on our bikes. The way that the media often goes overboard in its coverage of these events (just wait to see The Press tomorrow, I’m guessing…) also serves to give the impression that every ride out there is a deathwish. And so perhaps it’s no wonder that currently many people choose not to cycle because of perceived concerns about safety, particularly regarding traffic

However it is important to remember that the very reason these things often show up prominently in the media is because they are relatively rare and hence newsworthy. On average, only ~10 people die each year in motor vehicle crashes in NZ while out cycling; less than one a month. Meanwhile, typically about one person a day dies on our roads by other means (motor vehicles, pedestrians, etc) and it often barely make column filler in the paper.

The ongoing national Household Travel Survey tells us that we collectively cycle more than 25 million hours each year in NZ. This means that, on average, we have one fatal crash for every 2.5 million hours of riding or more. I can’t even comprehend what two million hours of riding is; someone who has lived on this planet for 80 years has only breathed for 700,000 hours…

If we want to consider all injury crashes with motor vehicles, typically there are about 800-900 Police-reported crashes every year in NZ. OK, sure there is a fair bit of under-reporting, but that’s largely at the minor injury end – hospital records also note that only about 300 people are hospitalised every year for cycle crashes with traffic. So, even if we assumed that the most serious cycle crashes (hospitalisation, outpatient treatment) numbered, say, 1000 per year we are talking about one serious crash for every 25,000 hours of riding. Again, do the math: if you cycled one hour a day every day for 70 years you’d be getting close to the average number of hours expected.

For those of us here in Christchurch, the news gets even better, thanks to the provision for cycling that has already been made over the years. 1/5th of all cycling in NZ occurs here in Christchurch. However, looking at the crash data from the past few years, only 1/6th of the injury crashes and 1/7th of the fatal crashes have occurred here. So your risk profile just improved over the national average. Just imagine how much better again that would be if we get our proposed high-quality cycling routes

All this is not to belittle the more minor scrapes and near-misses we have too; everyone has their “war stories” of incidents that gave them a bit of a shake-up. Particularly if you’re just starting out riding, it’s not a great way to get enthused about cycling. But we have to be careful not to imagine that each of these incidents is but a smidgeon away from being a fatal or serious injury – as the stats show, it’s very likely not to be the case.

In 25 years of cycling I’ve had one dinged pedal and a couple of scraped limbs – in 25 years of cricket I’ve had a broken finger, ruptured achilles tendon, dislocated finger, detached retina, concussion, and countless bruises. Funnily enough, no-one has told me that cricket is too dangerous, and I suspect that the physical activity has brought me far greater gains. Similarly, the relatively small risks of death and injury when cycling are also swamped by the typical life-years gained by people who take up regular cycling as part of their health and well-being (remember, over 2500 people die year in NZ from cardio-vascular and obesity-related diseases). When that is taken into account it is probably more dangerous not to be cycling…

Let’s be careful out there… (c/ Rotorua Daily Post)


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