Flashback Friday: Perceived Danger or Actual Danger?

Just the other day I saw another comment on social media by a Chch local stating how cycling in the city is very scary and puts them off. It’s a common enough reaction I see (even more so after the media highlights one of the typically rare cycling incidents in our city…), but there is a reasonable question about whether the perception matches the reality (especially with the growing cycleway network around Chch). This post, originally from May 2014, highlights how the perception of cycling risk can seriously affect its use…

Following last month’s tragic cycling incident in Hillmorton, yesterday’s Press reports (on the front page no less) that the victim’s father is now too scared to ride himself. It’s perhaps an understandable reaction, although I wonder whether the real issue is the perceived safety of cycling rather than the actual safety.

The morning after the incident, I was riding to work as usual and caught up with another colleague who was also biking there. Noting my (usual) non hi-vis everyday attire, he pointed to his own hi-vis jacket and said “my wife specifically asked me to wear it this morning”. It’s a sweet thought to think of one’s loved ones showing concern like that – but had anything really changed safety-wise between that day and the day before? I suspect if anything that, in light of the previous day’s news, motorists were probably more careful than normal around those on bikes…

Cycling safety is a tricky issue to deal with in public; certainly I have to grapple a bit with how it gets portrayed on this blog for starters. Yes, it’s understandable to show concern for something we think could be safer. But I think often in raising awareness about cycle safety, an “own goal” is scored instead. Individuals or groups might loudly claim “cycling is dangerous! we need to make it safer!”; however I suspect all that many of those listening think is “gosh, cycling is dangerous? I don’t think I’ll do that then…”

This is a particular trap that advocacy groups need to be wary of. Yesterday, The Press also reported on Spokes Canterbury presenting to the City Council’s Annual Plan Hearings, and led with the dramatic statement that Chch roads are a “deathtrap”“No-one will die if Christchurch does not get a new sports stadium, but people will die if better provisions are not made for cycling in the city.” Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, a group of Auckland “cyclists” erected a graveyard of crosses in front of the Auckland Council building to highlight their concerns about cycle safety in the City of Sails.

A cycle safety demonstration in Auckland – a help or hindrance? (c/ APN NZ Ltd)

This latter exercise mirrors an earlier campaign last month by the Cycling Advocates Network (CAN) to hold a series of memorial rides around the country to draw politicians’ attention to cycle safety and commit parties to upholding the recommendations that come out of the national Expert Panel currently investigating cycle safety in NZ. Interestingly, when Spokes discussed whether to hold such a ride here they decided to focus on the positive aspects of cycling instead – the result is this Sunday’s “Cycle Colombo” activity (hope to see you there!).

It’s one thing for advocacy groups to have private conversations with the relevant agencies and say “hey, we think cycling could be safer here; what can you do?” But you just know that if the discussion is aired publicly instead, the media will go nuts about “Cycle danger highlighted”. I suspect they sometimes think they’re doing the public a favour by bringing to attention these concerns (and something might get “done”). Except that we know that the best cycle safety measure is simply more people cycling, i.e. safety in numbers. So once again putting cycle safety on the front page (unlike “just another motorist death” relegated to page 5…) merely raises a false perception of cycling as this clearly death-defying activity.

So what’s the actual safety of cycling in NZ? I thought I’d share a chart that we’ve been playing around with in the Cycle Safety Expert Panel. It compares the relative cycle fatality rate per kms ridden for a number of countries that have appropriate travel data available (not many actually):

Now I hesitate slightly to put this chart out in public because these things tend to get picked up and used as a rallying call tool: “See! Our cycle safety record is terrible – why can’t we be like The Netherlands or Denmark?” The problem I have with this is twofold:

  • Firstly, our road safety record in general is not good compared to those better performing countries; typically our crash rate is double some of theirs. Yet, I don’t see a lot of people in NZ having mass demonstrations and crying “Our road safety record is terrible – why can’t we be like The Netherlands or Denmark?
  • Secondly, none of the numbers shown are big. Have another look at the NZ figure: 28 fatalities per billion km. That’s one fatality for every 35 million km ridden. How many kms have you ridden lately? Comparing countries is a bit like comparing the risk of being struck by a meteor or being struck by a falling plane – I don’t tend to lose much sleep over either.

As I’ve explained before, cycling is actually a very safe activity in NZ; even your risk of getting injured (let alone killed) is miniscule and that’s before we even consider the considerable health benefits that outweigh those safety concerns. The reason cycle accidents end up on the front page is because they are rare. By all means, let’s work to achieve an even better cycling environment out there. But let’s not get off our bikes in the meantime while we wait for that to happen – that just disadvantages you

What do you think? Is cycling safety in NZ a real concern or mostly a perceived one?

1 thought on “Flashback Friday: Perceived Danger or Actual Danger?”

  1. What these statistics don’t show are the near misses, the close passes and the occasional verbal abuse. I love riding around town and given the choice always cycle. Don’t get me wrong cycling is safe but it would be a refreshing change to see the media focus on the attitudes/actions of some people in their 2 tonne metal boxes than what happens in the aftermath when the two collide.

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