Monday 13 August 2012

Health and Safety

Cycling is safe. Cycling is dangerous. Cycling is safe. Cycling is dangerous.

It's a circular argument that has a tendency to do what circles tend to do....go around and around. I've certainly had reason to discuss the safety of cycling in the past (here and here).

There are definitely two camps, those that tell you that cycling is not only safe but that you are 746,654.543 times less likely to die young if you cycle. They will quote you figures for the distance travelled by bike, on foot, by car, by plane in canoe, etc and prove to you with statistics that per mile travelled cycling is the safest way to travel and safer than scratching your nose.

Camp two are the scaredy cats. The big girls blouses who roll up their trouser legs when walking just in case their leg shrinks, the trouser drops below the foot and they trip over. They are even, and this one is really crazy, even known to put some polystyrene on their heads in the belief that it would provide protection from a 10 tonne bus.

OK, I may be exaggerating just a teensy bit, but there are certainly cycle campaigners who would prefer us to play down the downsides to cycling for fear of scaring new cyclists away. The idea is that with more cyclists comes increased safety. The safety in numbers hypothesis.

I fall into a different camp (but I'm no scaredy cat!!). I think there is a reality that we need to face. Not that cycling is dangerous, (I'll not split hairs over the differences between the act of cycling and the act of interacting with other road users), but that it is more dangerous than it needs to be. I've discussed here, that if we compare cycling to exemplar countries, we can see a great disparity in the casualty figures.

As I have eluded to above, statistics are messy and can usually be twisted one way or the other. In fact it is not the statistics themselves that are messy, but the assumptions upon which they are based or the way they are calculated. For example there can be no doubt that cycling is a healthy activity. It reduces obesity, it improves cardiovascular fitness, and is quoted as increasing lifespan and making the cyclist look and feel younger. Let's be honest though, you don't need to cycle on the roads to gain those benefits. You could quite easily drive to the gym get on a gym bike and gain nearly all of the same health benefits as riding a bike on the road.

Cycling is healthy, but most forms of exercise are.

This is where the problem arises. Recently I had a discussion with someone on twitter who thought I was being melodramatic about the dangers of cycling. I tweeted back that ignoring the dangers was a bit like sticking your head in the sand. The tweeter replied '...cycling is 77 times safer than not cycling'.

Now I have no idea where that statistic was plucked from, the could well be some veracity to the comment. However, cycling is certainly not 77 times safer than not cycling. In fact staying at home, wrapping yourself in cotton wool, and living in a nuclear bunker without any other human contact is probably thousands of times safer than cycling. However, cycling is probably thousands of times healthier than living in that bunker.

That is the crux of the issue. Too many people mix up health and safety. Cycling is incredibly healthy. Most people would gain from it enormously if they took it up. Is it safe though? That, as always the case with safety, depends on your reference. No, cycling is not safer than living in that nuclear shelter (unless of course it is in a high radon area.....). Is it safer than driving? Not in the UK it isn't, but it is in the Netherlands.

So perhaps we shouldn't cycle, but all drive to the gym and go on bikes there?!


That is the beauty of cycling. Going to the gym is healthy, but it isn't good for the environment, it won't reduce congestion, and it costs lots of money. Cycling is good in so many ways that it makes so much sense. The solution is not to cycle less, it is to design our roads so that they make cycling safe so we can all share in the health and related benefits.

Until that happens we must be careful not to bury our heads in the sand.  If we do nothing, more people will die unnecessarily.

1 comment:

  1. All you had to do was Google for it although I'm surprised that you would not be aware of the paper.

    The 1:77 benefit was from the BMJ and was even carried on Radio 4 when it came out. Previously the BMJ had reckoned on 1:20