Cycle safety

Bicycle safety is the set of practices designed to reduce risk associated with cycling. Some of this subject matter is controversial: for example, neither bicycle helmets nor cyclepaths have been proven to deliver improved safety.

In the UK, the best reference on cycle safety is Cyclecraft, by John Franklin.


In risk management circles, the order of priorities is pretty uncontroversial:

  1. Reduce risk at source
  2. Reduce exposure to risk
  3. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

And strictly in that order. PPE has never been an acceptable alternative to studying and minimising risk.

But there's an exception.

The government is looking at cycle safety, and their investigation is, in the order they state:

  1. Cycle helmets
  2. Cycle facilities
  3. Driver behaviour

Which is precisely the reverse of the normal order. Now I know I've not been especially active in cycle safety lobbying recently, but that gets my goat and I want to do something about it. Aside from anything else, cyclists are a pretty small minority of those killed and injured on the roads. Cycle helmets will do nothing to address the risk faced by pedestrians and other road users - and pedestrians suffer exactly the same proportion of head injuries as do cyclists. A fact that should be a red flag, if only the government weren't quite so obviously engaged in policy-based evidence making.

Missing the point

Here's a quote from Douglas Adams:

This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn't the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. And so the problem remained...

We, cyclists, are the small green pieces of paper. We are seen by policy makers as being the problem, at least in terms of the injuries caused to us by others, and solutions to the problem always seem to focus on putting us somewhere else. Actually, of course, the problem of road safety is essentially a problem of motor traffic. So with the problem of cyclist injuries. On the whole, cycling is not dangerous. Driving is dangerous, and especially dangerous to cyclists and others who share the roads, but that is not the fault of those who are victims of the danger.

Bicycle crashes

The first recorded bicycle accident is probably the 1842 collision between Kirkpatrick McMillan, an early rider of the velocipede, and a young girl in the crowd that had gathered to witness his arrival in Glasgow after a 40-mile ride from his home[1].

Causes of crashes vary according to local conditions. Research in the Scotland, based on hospital based samples, has found that 72% of cyclist accidents involved no other vehicle at all, and that 7% were claimed to be caused by motor vehicles.[2] Another analysis found that between 60% and 85% of serious cyclist injuries are the result of negligence by a motor driver.[3] A study conducted in 2000 by SWOV (Institute for Road Safety Research) in the Netherlands found that single bicycle accidents accounted for 47% of all bicycle accidents, collisions with obstacles and animals accounted for 12%, and collisions with other road users accounted for 40% (with the remaining 1% having unknown or unclassified cause).

What is beyond dispute is that the majority of serious and fatal cyclist injuries are the result of collisions between between motor vehicles and cyclists. Which suggests that the best way to make cycling safer is to separate the two, but that turns out to be excessively simplistic as there are inevitable points of conflict and the more you remove the cyclists from the majority of the journey, the more you appear to increase the risk at those points of conflict - which are usually the most dangerous points to start with, being junctions and roundabouts.

The good news is that cycle crashes, despite the noise made about them, are actually pretty rare events. The main reason the data is so contradictory is that there is actually very little data to go on.

Defining danger

The boundaries are blurred due to cyclists' reputation for flouting the rules of the road. Some of this is deserved, some is not. In its Research Report 549 of 2003, the Transport Research Laboratory noted that:

A key finding which should be noted was that, when commenting on the scenarios it was usually the behaviour of the cyclist that was criticised – no matter how small the misdemeanour. Few links were made between the cyclist’s behaviour and any external influences that could be affecting their choice of behaviour; i.e. the respondents’ comments indicated that they thought the cyclist’s actions were inherent and dispositional behaviours. In contrast, the motorists’ misdemeanours were excused or justified in terms of the situational influences. As this tendency seemed to continue across the groups and the individual depth interviews and was unprompted, it is unlikely that group dynamics had any significant effect on this finding. [...] This aligns with the psychological prediction of targeting of members of an ‘out group’.

The majority of rules and controls in the road environment are there to protect motorists from each other, or to ration the available road space to enable motor traffic to move. Traffic lights, for example, give pedestrians time to cross and other motorists a chance to proceed through a busy junction. It is often asserted that cyclists habitually jump red lights (which they do, in London anyway), and that this is dangerous (for which contention there is remarkably little evidence, despite its reported prevalence). Most cyclists have a reasonably well-developed sense of self-preservation and will not cross a red light into a stream of fast-moving traffic. Is it a problem passing red to continue to progress through the morass of stationary cagers?

Defining safety

Although many accidents involve a cyclist alone, collisions whether accidental or not that also involve a motor vehicle put a cyclist in much greater danger and therefore account for a much greater number of serious injuries. A cyclist who is hit by a car is more likely to be killed than one who just falls off. This is also true for pedestrians, and most especially for children. Motor vehicles account for fewer than 10% of all child hospital admissions, but over half of child injury deaths.

The motor vehicle, then, is uniquely dangerous to other road users.

As long ago as the early 1930s there were efforts to clear cyclists off the roads to make way for private cars, then the preserve of the elite. These were successful in Germany, then an authoritarian regime, and spread during the war to German-occupied countries such as the Netherlands, but was resisted in other countries. In England, Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, H Alker Tripp commented that pedestrians and cyclists could never share the roads safely with motor traffic, so should be segregated. The implied loss of commons has been described as creating "bicycle Bantustans".

Primary safety

The state of knowledge regarding primary safety has advanced significantly through programmes such as Effective Cycling and the development of Britain's new National Standards for cycle training. In addition to technical improvements in brakes, tyres and bicycle construction generally (for example, it is now rare for a chain to snap and throw the rider when accelerating away from a stop), there are well-understood behavioural models which actively manage the risk posed by others.

Most important among these is the understanding of road position. In the 1960s and 1970s it was common for novice cyclists to be instructed to ride as close to the nearside curb as possible. It is now understood that this encourages dangerous overtaking, by acting as a tacit invitation to overtake and by giving a false impression of the amount of space a cyclist needs. Modern practice places the cyclist much further into the traffic stream.

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