Monthly Archives: June 2013

Safety in numbers – a myth untrue for the UK, or the real deal?

Safety in numbers (SN) is a phenomenon, popularised by Peter Jacobsen in an article published in 2003 (abstract here: http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/9/3/205.abstract), that appears to show that as numbers of walkers and cyclists increase, that the number of injuries does not increase in line as you might expect i.e. if we double the number of cyclists on the road, the number of cyclists being injured does not double – it either increases by a small amount, stays the same, or, counterintuitively, leads to a fall in cyclist injuries.  This has then been backed up by various studies and organisations coming out in support of SN – e.g. the BMA (British Medical Association).   The suggested mechanism for this effect is that more cyclists on the roads means more awareness of cyclists, with motorists better able to predict their movements and more likely to be looking out for them.  Of course, more cyclists means that motorists are also highly likely to be cyclists themselves, meaning a higher level of concern for their wellbeing.

I have seen it suggested in a few places on the internet recently that the ‘Safety in Numbers’ effect for cyclists is an effect caused by an improvement in road safety that leads the increase in cyclists.  I do not believe this to be true, for reasons explained below, and think from looking at the data that the single biggest thing we can do to make the roads safer for cyclists is to get more cyclists on the road – obviously better infrastructure which reduces conflict, particularly on higher speed roads, will also reduce deaths and injuries and I would not suggest for a second that we do not need this infrastructure to allow all levels of cyclists to make safe journeys.  In fact, I think that a marked growth in infrastructure, e.g. in towns, will lead to cyclists growing in confidence and then moving onto cycling between towns on rural roads.  However, I do think that more cyclists on the road will reduce the number of cycling casualties and that the SN effect is valid.

SafetyinNumbersNetherlands

 

 

 

Looking at this graph of death rates per distance travelled and distance travelled in the Netherlands, it’s clear to see that as the distance travelled increases from the 70’s, that death rates fall as levels of cycling increase.  We know that it was in the 70’s that the Dutch started building their cycle lanes – so maybe it’s true that safety leads cycle numbers?  It’s certainly true that a perceived lack of safety is the single biggest barrier to more people cycling, so it seems rational, right?

Take another look at the graph.  What about before the 70’s?  We can see a steep drop off in numbers cycling as cars take off, and the death rate per distance traveled soaring.  There were cycle lanes then, but not in the same way – they were not connected and of very mixed quality.  However, it still seems clear: when less people cycled, the roads became more dangerous for cyclists.  There were less cars, sure – just as we’d expect now if more people cycled.  As an aside, you might be interested to watch this video ‘how the dutch got their cycle lanes’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBdf9jYj7o

Clear correlation, plus a plausible explanatory mechanism means that I think the evidence, on balance, supports the idea that more cyclists will reduce the number of deaths per mile cycling.  To those who argue that the statistics seem to show that rising numbers of cyclists being killed here in the UK disproves SN, I would say that SN cannot trump all other factors.  In the UK, historically we have low numbers of cyclists which means that we have lost the knowledge of cycling – from how to make sure your brakes work properly, to riding away from car doors to avoid being doored – apart from in a few very experienced, determined cyclists.  We have a large number of new cyclists taking to the road who may not have ridden on the roads before, and who may not know someone that does to teach them – this means these new cyclists can be expected to have a significantly higher level of risk than the experienced cyclists; but the benefits of cycling still outweigh the risks many many times over, even for the newest cyclists (ref: http://cyclehelmets.org/1015.html).

To reiterate, I am not saying that this is an argument for not providing infrastructure.  I believe that large scale, safe cycling comes from starting large numbers of people riding their bikes young, getting them cycling  before they set up habits of driving everywhere.  The road system is cycleable in safety currently, but to reduce the risk to a level on a par with driving requires a large amount of training and experience – thousands of miles of riding.  How are people to know that this barrier is worth overcoming, if we don’t let them see the benefits of cycling?  We cannot start hoards of children riding – to school, to the shops, to the park – without a network of cycle infrastructure.

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Show respect, get some in return….

What I’m going to say now is a move away from my usual tack, deeply unscientific and in no way backed up by any data for much of it, so make of it what you will.  I’d be interested to hear your comments below.

I was watching a video a while back featuring James Cracknell cycling in London, and was struck by something that he said whilst riding – he gave a driver a thumbs up after being allowed to move out and commented ‘Give respect, get some in return…’  Waving and smiling at drivers is something I’ve always done, but this comment got me thinking about why I’d decided to do this, and what the possible benefits could be.

Often, when I raise the problem of bad driver behavior with drivers I’m friends with, their first comment is ‘yeah, but cyclists jump red lights/cycle on pavements…’  I certainly feel that when I’m riding on the roads somewhere where the drivers aren’t used to me riding, that I’m not given equal respect as would be shown by a car – this is displayed in the form of close passes, driving close behind with engine revving whilst waiting for a space to overtake etc (although noticeably less so over the last year, when Bradley Wiggins got hit there seemed to be a sea change in driver behaviour).

Personally, I think that the jumping red lights/pavement cycling thing is not the root cause of aggressive driver behaviour.  Various sources seem to show levels of red light jumping to be relatively low amongst cyclists.  Drivers regularly break what they see as trivial laws – making use of mobile phones, speeding, driving into cycle boxes at traffic lights or mandatory cycle lanes and drivers do not express anger at this behaviour, so it is not as simple as cyclists breaking the law.

French drivers - more at risk than UK drivers but French cyclists, less at risk than UK cyclists. Note that drivers in the UK age 17-19 are the biggest risk - to themselves and everyone else!

French drivers – more at risk than UK drivers but French cyclists, less at risk than UK cyclists. Note that drivers in the UK age 17-19 are the biggest risk – to themselves and everyone else!

It is clear from the rate of motorist deaths that driving is safer in the UK than pretty much anywhere in Europe, indicating a high standard of driving, but that the rate of cyclist deaths is noticeably higher, even than those countries which do not have lots of cycle infrastructure (e.g. France).  This suggests that there is a problem with either cyclist behaviour, or driver behaviour around cyclists in the UK.  I would suggest that although there is may be slightly more of a cycling culture in France, that cycling levels are similar (3% modal share, compared to 2% in the UK), and I cannot see a mechanism for cyclist behaviour being considerably better in France.  Certainly anecdotally, the most likely follow up to someone beeping at you while cycling in France is someone shouting ‘Allez, allez!’ as opposed to what you might hear shouted here (normally completely incorrect advice that you’d be safer riding closer to the kerb…or just abuse).  This goes hand in hand with bad, aggressive driving.

My view is that when people break out the ‘yeah, but cyclists jump red lights’ meme, they are trying to give justification to a feeling of a ‘lack of respect’ which is also often cited by drivers justifying bad driving around cyclists.  Usually in everyday driving, there is a constant interaction between motorists – a wave here, a nod there, establishing a rapport.  Often, cyclists are not confident enough to look behind them long enough to catch a drivers eye and acknowledge their presence, or take a hand off the handlebars to give a wave of thanks, so I think that this rapport does not exist as often between cyclists and motorists.

I wonder whether a movement by cyclists to make an effort to be seen as ‘more human’ might help further improve driver behaviour, and move us towards a safer road system.  Chatting to motorists at the lights, waving to say thanks when a driver has waited in a considerate manner, a smile and nod to say thank you are all things that could break down the perceived barriers between motorists and cyclists (I say perceived, because most cyclists are also motorists!) and help make the roads safer for cyclists.

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