Thursday, 22 December 2011

Cyclist Vulnerability

While looking for links for my first blog, I spotted this Treehugger article which referenced a now deleted newspaper article in which a driver was saying that the road is too dangerous for cyclists because cyclists are too vulnerable.

The thing is, this attitude, which is common among drivers, is based on a number of misconceptions.

Firstly, it assumes that pretty much all drivers are incompetent. Are they? I don't think so. Experience tells me that most drivers drive very carefully indeed. Sure, they break laws - they speed, they run stop signs. But they don't do these things particularly unsafely, unless they are impaired.

Secondly, it assumes that cyclists are incapable of being aware, incapable of seeing a situation, of anticipating problems and incapable of taking steps to avoid danger. Clearly this is not the case.

Thirdly, it assumes that cyclists always have an off-road option. In practice, this is hardly ever the case. In many places, cycling on the sidewalk is illegal and bike lanes and bike paths are fairly rare even in most cities.

Finally, it assumes that cycling on the road is more dangerous than cycling off it. Again, this is not the case. A study done in Denmark in 2007 concluded: "The safety effects of bicycle tracks in urban areas are an increase of about 10 percent in both crashes and injuries. The safety effects of bicycle lanes in urban areas are an increase of 5 percent in crashes and 15 percent in injuries. Bicyclists’ safety has worsened on roads where bicycle facilities have been implemented."

Further, statistics suggest that, over a short commute, cycling is actually safer than car travel. We appear very vulnerable, but in practice we are not as vulnerable as many folks seem to think. In 40 years and over 20,000 miles of cycling on the road in 15 different countries, I have never once been knocked off my bike. Sure, that's anecdotal, but Ken Kifer's review of statistics from the US Department of Transportation's 'The Environmental Benefits of Cycling and Walking' study and from 'Traffic Safety Facts 1997' suggests that the lifetime risk of a cyclist being killed while cycling is 1 in 142, while a car driver's risk is 1/83. So a cyclist's risk of being killed on any particular day is about 1 in 3,000,000. That's pretty darned low.

There's a lot of fear and a lot of fearmongering around this issue. The fact is, even though there is some incompetence out there on the roads, a cyclist's safety is almost always ensured by reasonably safe roads and every road user's unwillingness to be involved in an accident.

I began to suspect a long time ago that a lot of drivers' belief that cyclists belong off the road comes out of their own lack of confidence in their own abilities. They are frightened of doing something wrong and hitting us, so they create a fantasy of the vulnerable cyclist and the extreme danger of cycling in an effort to convince us to get off the road so that they don't have to worry so much about their fear that they're poor drivers.

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